Commonly referred to as access keys or keyboard shortcuts, accelerator keys are a combination of keystrokes that allow users to interact with software or to input commands without going through the traditional user interface. Even outside the topic of website accessibility, keyboard shortcuts are very common. For example, you can highlight a phrase on screen using your mouse, right-click and select "Copy" to copy that text to your computer's clipboard, or you could use the shortcut keys "CTRL" + "C" to accomplish the same thing without the mouse.
Why Accelerator Keys Matter
Accelerator keys, along with general keyboard UI, are a critical element in software accessibility across the board. Accelerator keys can help users who have certain motor disabilities to easily navigate within an application, interact with its menus, and enlarge the user interface even if they're unable to operate a mouse. As a concept, accelerator keys are intended to supplement other assistive technologies that a person might be using, from on-screen keyboards to voice input utilities to screen enlargers and more.
Key combinations are commonly employed to do everything from selecting buttons to selecting and deselecting boxes, returning to the prior screen, navigating backward or forward on a site's framework, and more.The Social Security Administration website, for example, has designed the pages on its domain in a way that allows every aspect of them to be completely navigable with a keyboard alone.
Above all else, they're intended to make a website or a piece of software as user-friendly as possible, regardless of the physical limitations that a user might be working with. Regardless of whether a keyboard happens to be the user's sole input device or they are physically unable to use a standard mouse, accelerator keys allow them to enjoy the precise user experience that you intended.
The Challenge of Accelerator Keys
The myriad benefits do not mean, however, that accelerator keys do not present certain challenges when it comes to website accessibility. Depending on the user's computer, it is entirely possible for their operating system, their web browser, certain browser extensions, and the web content they're navigating to all use the same accelerator keys — but in different ways. This is bound to cause conflicts, making content more difficult to navigate, not easier.
Likewise, depending on the way that accelerator keys are configured, they might conflict with other accessibility solutions, such as screen readers. If the accelerator keys in use by a web browser override the standard commands of a screen reader, the user could be unable to use that reader in the way that it was intended.
None of these challenges are impossible to overcome — but they do require a bit of additional thought and insight when it comes to making the best decisions with accessibility in mind. Website accessibility is hugely important, particularly as technology becomes a more and more ubiquitous part of our daily lives. Making thoughtful, informed decisions regarding accelerator keys and the ultimate end user experience of those with accessibility needs is of paramount importance moving forward.