The virtual keyboard or visual keyboard or on-screen keyboard is a type of accessibility software used very frequently to allow people with physical disabilities to use the keyboard, keyboard shortcuts and write text.
We are going to see in this post why the virtual keyboard is a great ally to compensate motor impairments and improve your autonomy.
Before getting started, it’s important to point out that there are many virtual keyboards, but they’re not equal.
To be clear, an expensive virtual keyboard does not mean that it has all the features to compensate your disability. This type of reasoning is fundamentally wrong in the field of disability !
Each software and each hardware equipment has its own specific functions. It must guide your choice according to your physical possibilities and the degree of compensation you want to obtain.
Virtual keyboard and productivity
In terms of productivity, the virtual keyboard is one of the slowest tool on the market, although with practice it is possible to write with it relatively quickly.
One of the most important points to highlight is that most of the “good” on-screen keyboards use predictive typing (word suggestions based on the first letters entered). It is a writing style that works a little bit like the one used on smartphones : you start writing letters and the software will automatically suggest words or conjugations to you.
To achieve good productivity with this type of software, it is essential to verify your future virtual keyboard has this functionality because it is essential to write mass text !
In addition, to have a good productivity on computer, the use of keyboard shortcuts is crucial !
As bizarre as it may sound, not all virtual keyboards have the ability to make keyboard shortcuts, so you have to be very careful because some on-screen keyboard are quite poorly programmed and do not allow you to do them. So be careful to check this point before buying any software !
You can easily experiment with the simple keyboard combination Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V to copy and paste.
Visual keyboard and school integration
Visual keyboards can play an important role in school integration.
In addition to writing text via predictive typing which is very useful for writing homework, presentations, essays, etc…, the visual keyboard can be used for primary school work such as writing and dictation. In this case, remember to turn off predictive input to allow the student to practice his spelling and grammar skills (otherwise it will be cheating ! lol).
At the same time, for activities in which we will have to draw geometry, make 3D models or do programming, it is useful to use the on-screen keyboard for brief and occasional uses to write a few characters.
On-screen keyboard and video games
Onscreen keyboard software is quite useful for playing video games. They will allow you to emulate the keyboard keys needed in a game. However, this is not the strong point of this type of accessibility software. There are many issues with managing windows and key combinations.
You must also be vigilant because to play correctly with an on-screen keyboard, it is often necessary to be able to perform continuous actions on the keys : if I press the A key without releasing it on the on-screen keyboard, the key must be sent to the computer continuously.
Even if this behavior seems natural to you (and it is normal because it is the normal and logical behavior of a physical keyboard), this is not how all on-screen keyboards work : often when you press on a key continuously, only a brief action is sent to the computer !
This type of faulty behavior exists on a lot of softwares, so be careful to test this functionality when you try this type of assistive device !
How to choose successfully an on-screen keyboard ?
Let’s sum up… You must be attentive to :
- The presence of a predictive input system (some on-screen keyboards are able to support and do predictive input in several languages)
- The possibility of making keyboard shortcuts
- The possibility of making continuous presses on a key
- The presence of special keys (Insert, Delete Home, End, Previous Page and Next Page) and / or the numeric keypad, and / or directional arrows. Warning: these features are not always present !
- The ability to resize the on-screen keyboard to make it as small as possible. Not all on-screen keyboards are resizable ! It is an essential element in order to be able to position windows on your screen to increase visual comfort during long sessions on a computer.
- The ability to change the graphic and sound aspect of the keyboard (repositioning the keys, adding keys, animations when hovering over the keys, sounds when pressing the keys, etc.). Although this may seem incidental but it is important to maximize user comfort by customizing your keyboard as much as possible.
- The ability to act in all types of programs. Some on-screen keyboards only allow writing in word processing software. That implies that some of them are not able to work in web browsers or in video games.
- The ability to program complex functions such as macro commands.
From my point of view and at the present time, the three keyboards that meet a maximum of these criteria and that can be acquired for an affordable price are :
- Windows on-screen keyboard (free) : this is the most widely used standard tool, but lacks certain features. Because it’s free, it is a good start with this type of assistive software.
- Comfort On-Screen Keyboard Pro (30€) : an ideal tool from all points of view (predictive input in several languages, interface graphical customization, perfect use in video games, etc.).
Model used and customized by the Give Access founder
- Hot Virtual Keyboard (30 €) : it is the big brother of Comfort On-Screen Keyboard Pro. Its only difference is that it is more “programmable” and you can configure macro-commands on keys.
Improve disability compensation by combining virtual keyboard and accessibility softwares
As you have seen, we can do a lot of things with a virtual keyboard but we can go much further and use it to trigger more refined actions like :
- perform keyboard shortcuts with one click
- write pre-recorded texts
- write special characters (such as ALT + XXXX)
- perform repetitive sequences of several keys on the keyboard
- trigger a continuous press on a key when you can only physically perform a short action.
- Etc …
All of these features are required to achieve a maximum productivity with an on-screen keyboard. Give Access software was developed with this in mind. In addition, they are free ! You can find more information here.
I will end with one last tip : get started right away ! Mastering and using an on-screen keyboard is not easy at first. With experience you can do great things with this type of software. I use it all the time, every day and it’s a real autonomy tool so LET’S GO AND USE IT NOW !