What are Access Keys?
Access keys are keyboard shortcuts that are intended to help users who have difficulty in using pointing devices such as a mouse. They are intended to simplify navigation for people using special devices such as screen readers by delivering quick access to important links. Users that can view a full web page already have this quick access because important links can be made to stand out on the page using numerous visual methods. In terms of accessibility, the idea of the access keys does not deliver. Web pages are often designed with a user in mind that can look at the full two-dimensional visual layout. Typically, such a user will be able to recognise the navigation bar or other important links, and then use their mouse to click on the link that takes them to where they want to go. They will not need to scan through the whole page to find it. However if a user is using a screen reader, for example, the page information is generally linearised, (in one long stream of information), and the navigation bar or other important links have to be picked out of all this content. Access keys are a mechanism to allow people to navigate to links or through forms who do not use a mouse. They allow web developers to provide short cut keys to important links or input boxes. For example, the image below shows the Nomensa home page without the layout. The navigation is at the bottom of the page, and could take some time to navigate to with a text browser or screen reader. People with visual or motor disabilities can then press a keyboard shortcut to go straight to the navigation, rather than having to go through many links. For example, if the developer configures the home page link to have an access key of 1, you would press Alt + 1 then enter (in Internet Explorer) to go to the home page. Netscape users can just press Alt + 1 to go to the home page. For screen reader users, the access keys are read out next to each link when you read through the page. There are no universal standards for what link should use which access key, although the UK government has started to instigate one it is aimed at government sites, and may not work for other sites. For people who do not use the mouse but can see the screen, there is no inherent way of knowing about the available access keys unless they are shown on the screen somehow. Typical ways of doing so would be to have a link to a page showing the access keys (e.g. an accessibility statement) or within each link, underlining the letter used in the key.
Why Access Keys Don't Work
Interfering with access devices
Many of the people who should benefit from access keys use special devices to use a computer, for example: users of screen readers or special browsers. These devices often have a multitude of keyboard commands, including some that use the Alt key. In a comparison by a Canadian accessibility company, it was found that there were only 9 keys that were not used by one of the 7 tested browsers and screen readers, these were: x z `= ( [ ] \ : That does not lead to easily remembered short-cuts! The worst keys to use are D, E, F, and H. If these are used, you will certainly be overriding people's commands to do basic things such as accessing the address bar or the help menu. Using access keys without this knowledge tends to negate the benefit they could provide.
No understanding of access keys in the target population
The people who are supposed to benefit from access keys rarely know what they are. When testing a site with people using screen readers, none tried using the access keys available. A typical comment was "I don't think they work with a screen reader". Without something to encourage the usage of access keys, they simply do not get used. If you go to the trouble of using access keys, they are not likely to be used by the people you aim them at.
No common standard
There are no universal standards for what link should use which access key. That is not to say there are not some example standards in place, but that even with one, a common standard may not make sense on some web sites. Presently, the UK government has instigated a standard that is aimed at government sites, yet may not work for other sites. For example, the standard includes access keys for 'Skip navigation' and 'Complaints procedure'. As a case scenario, this site has neither. (We have a 'skip to navigation' instead, as the content is first). However, it is difficult to envisage a common set that could apply across different sites, which would have to be the aim for wide spread usage by people.
Access keys are not used by the people who are supposed to use them, and could even hinder people if poorly implemented. The time would be better spent on a technique that is known to work, such as skip links. Although access keys are intended to improve site navigation, it is shown they actually can interfere with web accessibility. In terms of implementing a common standard, it would require a universal understanding of access keys to be applied to every site. Joe Clark, an accepted expert on accessibility, says access keys are : "severely compromised in practical application..." he continues to add, "If you add access keys, then, you are really coding for a future utopia".