Beginner's guide to keyboard skills

Whatever your level of sight loss, touch typing is useful if you are going to write documents.

Knowing your way around the keyboard is important for using a computer either as an addition to, or instead of, using a mouse. It takes considerable time to learn these skills. Voice recognition and dictation, which for a long time have been problematic for people with sight loss, is built into most new computers and smart phones and is becoming more straightforward to use. We've written a beginner's guide to voice control it in case you want to explore that alongside or instead of using the keyboard.

Keyboard skills courses

A number of programs and courses are available for you to learn keyboard skills if you have sight loss. The choice of program is a subjective one, and it is important to try one or more programs to find the most suitable one. A number of the computer-based courses listed are available as free demonstration versions that can be downloaded from the Internet. Demonstrations may also be available on disk from the supplier of the product.

It's best to learn to type on a full size keyboard, even if this means plugging one into a laptop. There are three reasons:

  • The keys on a full size keyboard are more likely to be in the standard layout and better spaced.
  • Most courses will assume a full size keyboard is being used.
  • Laptop keyboards are often close to a trackpad which can get in the way.

Another good idea is to practise regularly for short periods, rather than to have fewer sessions with more time between them. And concentrate on being accurate; your speed will increase later.

The section dealing with computer based programs contains a range from mainstream programs to those programs specifically designed for blind and partially sighted people. You may prefer more traditional methods, for example a tape based course, which will teach you how to touch type. Or you may simply wish to improve your keyboard skills and this can be accomplished through familiarisation with keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts can be of great use to anyone and using a keyboard rather than a mouse can often be faster for many actions such as cutting and pasting.

Program designers have long used keyboard shortcuts as part of their program designs, and all computer programs should provide keystroke combinations as alternatives to the use of a mouse for control. This means that by using a keyboard you can have as much control over a computer as someone who is using a mouse.

How keyboard skills courses work

All keyboard courses are based on a series of exercises that are designed to familiarise the with the keyboard layout as well as the correct finger and hand positions for typing.

Once these have been learned, a series of lessons are worked through which are designed to cover the whole range and use of the keyboard. Some of the programs give feedback and allow you to repeat and store lessons. Some programs allow you to change the fonts or colours used on the screen.

The specialist programs designed for blind and partially sighted people give additional help by means of user configurable displays so that text on screen can be enlarged, and text and background colours can be changed. In addition, the programs listed in the Specialist software section all have additional assistance in the form of speech output. The speech includes features such as having instructions read, instruction on what needs to be typed and repeat what has been typed.

If you are a screen reader user, it may be necessary to temporarily disable the sound output from either the talking typing tutor or the screen reader to avoid repetition of speech. Other typing courses rely on cassette tape based information and may be more suitable if you want to develop skills using a word processor or standard typewriter.

Mainstream keyboard skills software

These programs are typically found advertised for sighted people to develop keyboard skills. They may be suitable if you are using screen magnification software at low settings. It is important to try before buying to make sure the product is right for you. The display area of these programs is usually fixed at a certain display resolution, but by adjusting the monitor resolution, the accessibility of the program may be improved. How useful this software is depends very much on the amount of vision the you have and how much the program can be modified.

Examples include:

  • Accutype - has a degree of user customisation to allow some changes to colours and font sizes to be changed. Windows computer required.
  • Typequick - may be suitable for some partially sighted users. Windows or Mac computer and an internet connection required.

Online keyboard courses are becoming more popular. One example is Doorway Online, which is free and offers both talking and non-talking courses.

Specialist keyboard skills software

This software has been specifically designed to allow people with sight loss to learn to touch type using a computer. This means that you can develop keyboard skills at your own pace without the need for formal lessons or a teacher. All of these products provide voice output as well as allow font size and colours to be changed. This allows people with all levels of vision including those with no useful vision to carry out the typing lessons.

These products can be used by people with sight loss, without the need to immediately purchase screen reader or screen magnification software. It is only the typing tutor that is voiced, and consequently some form of access technology will be needed to use any other program on the computer. Most screen reader and screen magnification software packages do work with these products, although the speech output from the typing tutor or screen reader may need to be disabled to prevent repetition of output.

Examples for Windows computers include:

  • Azabat Touch-Typing Tutor - the beginners' version introduces touch-typing and teaches the basic layout of the keyboard through letter and word drills. The advanced version builds on this foundation and develops typing speed and accuracy. Both versions are self voiced and run direct from the CD. A demonstration CD is available. Azabat products are available from the RNIB shop.
  • Iota TouchType2 - text can be altered to the needs of the user according to font style, size and colour. The built-in speech output speaks out the letters as you progress, it also informs you of your progress and where you need more practice.
  • Portset's Keyspeak Touch Typing Tutor - has complete speech output and speaks to you as it guides you around the computer keyboard and introduces you to all the keys available.
  • APH Talking Typer - in addition to speech output the text displayed can be customised, allowing size, font and colour of text to be changed. There are two versions: one with "enhanced voicing" and one without.

Alternative methods for developing keyboard skills

You don't have to use a computer programme to learn how to use a keyboard - here are some alternatives.

Further education colleges

Some local colleges offer typing courses, however these are primarily aimed at sighted users. Depending on your level of vision and the resources available for you these may provide a suitable alternative to self taught PC based courses. It is important to check with your local college about the availability of such courses and whether any additional resources are available for students with sight loss.

Aesop

Aesop can be connected to a PC keyboard as a teaching aid for keyboard skills. A PC is not required. It is not a typing tutor but announces keystrokes by artificial speech and calculates typing speed up to 99 words per minute.

Still need help?

We hope that our range of beginner's guides gave you the information you needed to get started with confidence.

But if you've read the guides and still need some help, you could try the following:

  • Most computer applications contain keyboard shortcuts which can speed up common actions. Some of these will be given in the menus, and you may find more in the Help material that accompanies each application; try searching on "keyboard", "shortcut", "hotkey" or "accessibility".
  • Our technology support page contains links to keyboard shortcuts for popular programs, which you can view online or download.
  • A lot of lists of keystrokes can also be found on the web, for instance from Microsoft and Apple.
  • Call our Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or email helpline@rnib.org.uk for advice and to find out about our free technology support service.

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