September 29, 2007

Using the On-Screen Keyboard as an Alternative to Typing with a Physical Keyboard

As an individual with a physical disability who touts speech recognition so much, I occasionally get asked how I ever use the computer without having speech recognition available (since I cannot move my arms well enough to operate a standard physical keyboard)? This is a good question, since speech recognition is not one of the most portable tools around. For example, I've never come across a public computer at a library or hotel that was set up with a good microphone and sound card combo, which are necessities for using speech recognition. So, when the necessary hardware is unavailable, that means I have to look for software to simulate it--in this case, the On-Screen Keyboard.

The On-Screen Keyboard is nothing new to Windows; it's been one of the standard accessibility tools for several versions now, not just Vista. It's pretty simple, really, but is extremely useful for users like me who cannot utilize a traditional physical keyboard. Basically, the On-Screen Keyboard application displays a window that looks exactly like a standard keyboard, only it is on the screen. You can select the different keys simply by pointing and clicking with a mouse or other pointing device. So, in truth, there is still a need for hardware since something has to do the pointing, but, generally, using a mouse or other similar device is a lot less strenuous than using a physical keyboard. Believe me, I know. Currently, I can still move my fingers adequately on one hand, so I can still handle a mouse, but a traditional keyboard is just not an option for me.

Interestingly, the On-Screen Keyboard and other similar applications have become a little more mainstream now than they have ever been thanks to the rise of tablet computing. Touchscreen devices like these typically allow writing with your finger or a stylus, but occasionally it may be necessary to find a way to input keys like we would on a normal keyboard. So this means a software keyboard can actually be a necessity for everyone, not just those with disabilities.

How do you actually start the On-Screen Keyboard in Windows? Since it's generally not a tool most will need, Microsoft tends to bury it down several levels in the start menu. (They've done this in every version of Windows I can remember.) In Vista, you can launch the program by mouse as follows:

Click Start > All Programs > Accessories > Ease of Access > On-Screen Keyboard

There you go! You found it! Using the program is pretty straightforward and really doesn't need any explanation. It's simple and does its job, which is all one should expect from a tool like this.


braadkris/Misty said...

Very nice! I have a friend using Vista so, when I get a chance, I'll try out the keyboard. Looking forward to your next blog, Marc! :)

Marc of the Web said...

Thank you for the compliment! I appreciate it.

To be clear, the On-Screen Keyboard application has been available in prior versions of Windows as well. For example, in Windows XP, you can launch the application as follows:

Click start > All Programs > Accessories > Accessibility > On-Screen Keyboard