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Screen readers are keyboard shortcut monsters

Desktop screen readers are usually controlled with the keyboard only. Offering tons of functionalities, all of them ought to be triggered by keyboard shortcuts. But what to do if none of the standard keyboard combinations are available anymore?

Problem: no keyboard combinations left

Most traditional keyboard shortcuts (a combination of at least one modifier key and any other key, if you haven't done this yet, go back and read Controlling a computer with a keyboard only) are already in use by the operating system and running applications.

Solution: using Insert as modifier key

Both screen readers NVDA and JAWS worked around this problem by hijacking the Insert key as their modifier key. So most interaction with desktop screen readers involves a combination of Insert and other keys.

Some examples:

  • When running NVDA:
    • Insert + N shows the NVDA menu.
    • Insert + F7 shows the elements list (with links, headings, landmarks, etc.).
  • When running JAWS:
    • Insert + J shows the JAWS menu.
    • Insert + F6 displays the heading list.

Alternatives to the Insert key

If you're on a Mac running NVDA or JAWS in a virtual machine, there are several ways you can work around the missing Insert key; if you haven't done this yet, go back and read Configuring VMware Fusion on macOS.

Both NVDA and JAWS offer the option to use Caps Lock instead of Insert as a modifier key. For some reason though, this does not seem to work in VMware Fusion.

Naming convention

In this guide, we do not talk about the Insert key. Instead, when running NVDA, we talk about the NVDA key. And when running JAWS, we talk about the JAWS key.

So the examples above look like this:

  • When running NVDA:
    • NVDA + N shows the NVDA menu.
    • NVDA + F7 shows the elements list.
  • When running JAWS:
    • JAWS + J shows the JAWS menu.
    • JAWS + F6 displays the heading list.