WCAG 2.1 – What is Character Keyboard Shortcuts?

As part of our ongoing series looking at the new criterion found in WCAG 2.1, today we’re looking at keyboard shortcuts and how they may be adapted to the needs of a user.

A maze where a keyboard wins against a mouse

Keyboard shortcuts are useful as they can be quicker than using a mouse. Most computer users know the control+C and control+V shortcuts in a document to copy and paste, but many websites also have keyboard shortcuts for quick navigation.

Social media has utilised a number of keyboard shortcuts to help users interacting with their account. For example, on a web browser Facebook has a number of keyboard shortcuts to help with navigation, liking and posting a status. Specifically, J and K navigate previous and next post, L is for like, C is for comment and P is for post.  These shortcuts will be useful for most users, but some users may have problems with shortcuts.

2.1.4 – Character Key Shortcuts (Level A)

The WCAG criterion on Character Key Shortcuts states:

If a keyboard shortcut is implemented in content using only letter (including upper- and lower-case letters), punctuation, number, or symbol characters, then at least one of the following is true:

Turn off
mechanism is available to turn the shortcut off;
A mechanism is available to remap the shortcut to use one or more non-printable keyboard characters (e.g. Ctrl, Alt, etc);
Active only on focus
The keyboard shortcut for a user interface component is only active when that component has focus.

Some users interact with computers using voice commands, rather than using a keyboard and mouse. Speech users give specific commands, some preset and others that they have created, that help them to navigate and interact with websites and their features. This may be because a user has low dexterity and cannot use a keyboard or mouse.

A table with some example Access Key shortcuts

Many websites have Access key shortcuts and will normally publish the list for user’s benefit.

A speech user may use single letters or phrases to interact with a website. A speech user’s microphone will be listening and if it detects a letter, or group of letters within a word, it will launch the commands.

However, speech navigation and keyboard shortcuts can conflict with each other, with can lead to problems. If a family member walks in and asks “would you like a cup of tea?” and shortcuts are still enabled, Facebook, as an example, could end up hearing the letters of the sentence and open attachments (O), liking a status (L), navigating to the next status (K), start commenting (C) or posting a new status (P). While this may be extreme, this kind of issue could happen.

This problem doesn’t just occur with speech users. Users who may have low dexterity may be prone to pressing multiple keys at the same time. When interacting with a website, they may accidentally activate several commands simultaneously. There needs to be a system in place to prevent a user from inadvertently interacting with a website.

Turn off and Remap

Two key features that may be useful for such users is the ability to turn off website based shortcuts, or to remap them so they have to include a second key (such as control or alt). By doing this, is means that user with a motor disability are able to interact with a website easily.

Earlier we mentioned Facebook as an example of a website that has keyboard shortcuts. However, Facebook do not have a way of turning off or remapping their keyboard shortcuts. This will be a problem for some users and limit their ability to interact with the website effectively.

This issue is further highlighted by screen reader users who may use their own shortcuts to interact with content. For example, screen reader NVDA has shortcuts to go to lists (L), headings (H), graphics (G) or links (K). If a website has keyboard shortcuts that conflict with a screen reader’s shortcuts, then it will result in a user struggling to navigate and interact with content effectively.

To overcome this feature, apart from turning off keyboard shortcuts from a website, include the idea of remapping. This means that to interact with a website’s features, a non-character key must be pressed first. This could be control, alt, shift or another key. This remapping feature allows users who require keyboard shortcuts for other purposes, or uses who are prone to accidentally pressing keys, to have a clear option to use or prevent a website’s shortcuts.


Keyboard shortcuts provide a number of useful features for users to help with with navigation and interacting with a page and its features. Some websites have created custom shortcuts to provide specific navigation and interaction with a page. For many users, these shortcuts will provide a useful function, but to some the introduction of shortcuts may conflict with assistive technologies that they use.

The two main ways to accommodate this situation is by providing a method to turn off the keyboard shortcuts, or through remapping where another non-character key must be pressed. This provision ensures that all users can interact with a website and that users utilising assistive technologies can still use their tools without hindrance or incorrect entries.

Does your website have keyboard shortcuts?

It’s possible that you’ve created your website to have keyboard shortcuts for ease of navigation, but have they been set up in such a way that they inadvertently affect users of assistive technologies? Even if your website has not been created to include shortcuts, it may be that a feature on your website does not respond to the keyboard shortcuts of assistive technology users.

Please feel free to contact Dig Inclusion to discuss how keyboard shortcuts can affect a user’s interaction with your site.