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The Windows XP On-Screen Keyboard

The On-Screen Keyboard bundled in with Windows XP is a welcome addition and has proved useful for many of my clients. But like most of Windows' accessibility options and utilities there are limitations meaning that many users will need to upgrade to a commercial On-Screen Keyboard.

Windows XP On Screen Keyboard

Above is a screenshot of Windows XP's OSK displayed actual-size. It is quite straight forward but does have some features and limitations that require some further investigation.

Visual Appearance

It is important to adapt a computer screen so that it is visually accessible and comfortable for your pupil. Only limited adjustments can be made to this on-screen keyboard mostly because the Window is a fixed size (although it is possible to get around this problem - see this note). It is possible to enlarge and change the font typeface by selecting 'Fonts...' from the Settings menu but the size of the letters is limited by the fixed size of the keys.

It is not possible to change the colours of the letters or the keys within the program itself but one can resort to using the Windows Control Panel to define a new 'global' colour scheme across Windows as a whole. For some reason known only to Microsoft, the OSK keys use '3D Objects' to define forecolour and 'Menus' for the background. These can be set in the Advanced section under Appearance in the Control Panel's Display Applet. Try not to be put off by the word 'advanced', I have more information on this in my guide to fine-tuning the Windows Display.

Larger fonts on the OSK keyboard
Fonts can get too large on the OSK keyboard
A yellow-on-black colour scheme on the OSK keyboard
The letters on the keys can be enlarged and the font can be changed... ... but set the font too large and the letters won't fit inside the keys You can apply a high-contrast colour scheme like this one by manually fine-tuning the global Windows colour settings.

Dwell Delay

The Windows XP on-screen keyboard includes a mouse dwell feature to help people who struggle with single mouse clicks. Rather than having to click on each key to produce a letter, an option can be set that allows you to simply hover the pointer over a key for a determinable amount of time. It doesn't matter if you have a slight tremor, so long as the mouse pointer doesn't cross the boundaries of the key.

Unfortunately the OSK's keys can't easily be resized so some users will find that their tremor is too great to use this keyboard (again I have a workaround to this problem). My site contains further information on adapting a Windows computer for people with tremors both for the keyboard and the mouse.

On Screen Keyboard Typing Mode

To enable Dwell Delay select "Typing Mode" from the OSK's 'Settings' menu.

By default the program uses 'Click to select'. Change this to 'Hover to select' and then choose an appropriate 'Minimum time to hover' or as we know it in this industry, the 'dwell delay'.

Setting too short a time might mean that your user selects keys inadvertently as he or she is attempting to target the correct letter. Setting too long a time would mean it takes longer to produce text, and it means that they have to be able to hold their pointer steady for longer.

Click OK to return to the main OSK screen. Notice that when you hover over a letter a visual cue indicates how long the pointer needs to be held there. This is a very useful feature as it makes it clear that dwell delay is enabled and how long one has to wait each time before the key is activated.

Switch Access

I must admit I was quite surprised when I first received Windows XP and found that it had an On-Screen Keyboard bundled with it. I was even more surprised when I found out that it could be accessed using a switch (My site contains further general information on accessing a computer using switches) Although it has some limitations the Windows OSK is free and can prove capable for many users, especially for those who are struggling to find the resources needed to purchase the fairly expensive commercial keyboards.

WinXP OSK in 'block mode'

The keyboard can be put into a 'Block' mode where each row of keys is divided into three columns. This allows more efficient row-column scanning as a pupil wouldn't have to scan all the way from 'a' through 'o' in order to get 'p'. For some users it might be best to keep the regular layout (e.g. users who are happy to wait but want to press the switch as few times as possible).

Windows XP can accept joystick input (most switch interfaces use this protocol) or from the keyboard it accepts SPACE, ENTER or any one of the F1-F12 keys. The first input starts the scan and the second then selects the group (in block mode) with the third accepting the desired key. This can be seen in the image above, where the scanning highlight has reached the RTYUI block. This is a fairly basic type of single-switch scanning - the keyboard does not accept two-switch scanning.

For these users you would need to use commercial software like Clicker or The Grid, the latter especially offers many advanced and intuitive switch access techniques but isn't, quite understandably, free. For a bit more insight on this I have an animated demonstration of scanning options in Clicker which you might find useful.

Another XP limitation is the layout of the letters. They have been set out to emulate a standard keyboard which makes it faster for mouse users who are already familiar with the QWERTY layout. Switch users will find this very frustrating, however, as they would often be better off with a layout that corresponds with frequency of use, starting with the letter 'e' in the top left corner and working down.


Many on-screen keyboards can be customized. Extra keys can be added to provide whole words or sentences or 'macro' scripts that perform a function such as turning on a lamp or shutting down the computer. Keys can even link to extra 'pages' of the keyboard that provide whole new layouts of custom-made keys.


Most On-Screen Keyboards such as The Grid, Penfriend (and Clicker through Penfriend) and Click N Type provide space on the keyboard for prediction.

The prediction software works by analysing your high frequency words and providing suggestions as you type the first one or two letter, or even as you complete the previous word. This can be of enormous benefit to on-screen keyboard users as the number of virtual keystrokes saved cuts down on physical exertion and greatly accelerates the overall typing rate.

You could combine XP's OSK with specialist prediction software such as Co:Writer.

Audio Output

Many on-screen keyboards provide audio output of the keys as they are highlighted through the scanning. This is very useful for people with visual or reading difficulties.

The Windows XP On-Screen Keyboard has no audio output other than an optional 'click' noise each time a key is pressed. This audio feedback can help some users as they don't need to move their eyes to check that their letter has appeared in the client application, but the program does not support audio cueing while scanning or hovering over keys.

A note on resizing the OSK

I discovered that the keys on the Windows XP OSK automatically scale up to fill the window when it is forcibly resized. I realised this when I set the menu fonts to extra large and noticed that the keys all remained within the fixed window and reduced in size equal to one another.

It is possible to maximise the OSK (to fill the entire screen) even though there isn't a maximise button. This can be accomplished through the Windows Task Manager which can usually be accessed by pressing:


Unfortunately it is then impossible to see any other program in Windows whilst using the keyboard. You can return the keyboard to its standard size by double-clicking on the title bar.

I figured I might be able get round this problem by temporarily adjusting the screen work area as dockable windows such as the Taskbar and Google's SideBar manage, but unfortunately the OSK is not well behaved and does not check this system parameter when it is maximised (i.e. it fills the entire screen anyway).

But I found a way eventually.

The Windows XP OSK - stretched to fit the width of the screen


This is a screenshot of the Windows OSK expanded to fill the entire screen horizontally and 45% of the screen in height. Microsoft Word has automatically 'docked up' against it so that none of it is hidden beneath the keyboard.

This can be accomplished by downloading a free little utility that I made. Any feedback/requests greatly appreciated. I'm vaguely working on an automated version but it's very time consuming and I'm very busy!

Please note that the software has not been tested on many computers and although I haven't had any problems with it I can't guarantee that you won't.

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