Are access keys accessible?

When developing a web page with accessibility in mind, access keys are usually a consideration especially when part of the brief is to “make this site as accessible as possible”. Access keys were brought in by the W3C in 1999 to allow people with blindness or mobility problems who would have difficulty in using a mouse the option to press a key shortcut on their keyboard to select a link.

An example of HTML code for assigning an access key to a link is as follows:

<a href="" accesskey="h">Home</a>

I was quite surprised when looking at the Design and build accessible websites section of the RNIB website because they don’t seem to recommend the use of access keys. Apparently there seems to be two problems with using access keys; firstly there can be a conflict with other access technologies like the JAWS screen reader that also use keyboard shortcuts to navigate through site. Secondly, a new set of access key shortcuts can lead to confusion especially when there is a large number of keys for a particular website. It can definately help here by keeping the number of these shortcuts down to a minimum and also possibly by using a standard access key list like that recommended by the UK government:

  • S – Skip navigation
  • 1 – Home page
  • 2 – What’s new
  • 3 – Site map
  • 4 – Search
  • 5 – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
  • 6 – Help
  • 7 – Complaints procedure
  • 8 – Terms and conditions
  • 9 – Feedback form
  • 0 – Access key details

After digging a bit deeper into these potential access key issues i stumbled upon this article by a Canadian web accessibility consultancy who did some research back in 2002  and found that some access keys did conflict with some reserved shortcuts used by JAWS and IBM’s HomePageReader.

After digesting this information i think i will be taking the RNIB’s lead and will not be using access keys as they themselves say “…a well ordered site with good structural mark up, clear link text and page titles, making good use of hidden navigation can do more for the user in terms of easing navigation than access keys can.”