Using the Applications Key... With or Without the Key!

Setting the "context" for this post

As a visual user of the computer, I use a mouse to move a visual cursor around the screen to click on different items on the screen.  One of the most common functions I will use the mouse and cursor for is to move it over something, like an icon or a link, and then right click.  When I do so, I open up what is called the "context menu" for what I just clicked on.  Get it?  What I click on is the... context!  For example, when I click on a desktop icon, I will open up the icon's context menu that shows menu options like "Open," "Delete," or "Properties."  You will find an image of this context menu below.

Graphic of context menu open after right-clicking on a Microsoft Word document.

Who is this good for? 

Now, this method of accessing the context menu when needed is good for me, and it will likely work well for my students who are visual computer users like me.  However, if I am working with my auditory and tactual computer users, that is those who use screen readers and keyboards/braille displays for input access, they don't necessarily have the benefit of knowing where the mouse is to move it to an icon and then right click; this approach is visual.  So, what can they do?  The answer is simple: use the applications, or menu key!  

The applications/menu key!?!? Never heard of it!

If you're asking your self, "Have you ever heard of the applications key, much less used it? Nope, didn't think so!" Then you are like most people I know and have worked with.  However, it is an incredibly useful key for those who use screen readers to access the computer.  Let's start with where it is located.  On standard, full-sized keyboards, the applications key is usually found on the same row as the space bar, and it is located to the right of the space bar between the right side Windows key and the right side control key.  So, as a tactile method of locating the applications key, I will tell my students to find the space bar, then move right and pass by the ALT and Windows keys, making it the third key to the right of the space bar in most standard keyboards.  I have also included a picture below of the applications key's location, outlined in red.

Cool, so how do screen reader users use it?

To use the applications key, the computer user will need ot use their screen reader to navigate to the item that others might just move the mouse cursor to hover over.  So, a user might use the tab button while in a webpage to jump from link to link, and if there is a link that he or she wants to open the context menu up for, they will press the applications key.  From there, the user will use the arrow keys to move through the context menu options, and then the user will select the desired option by pressing enter.  Simple!

Wait...there's got to be a catch, right?

Unfortunately, this is correct.  The catch is, in this day and age of laptops and smaller, portable keyboards, not every keyboard will have the applications key on it.  For what it's worth, just know that we are just talking about keyboards compatible with Microsoft Windows, not Apple computers or mobile devices.  Now, what happens is that manufacturers need to fit all the "critical" keys in as tightly as possible for the form factor of the laptop or keyboard they are designing, and they leave out lesser used keys like the applications key and the right side windows key. In their place, they might place a function key that can trigger other functions when held down with other keys; these are much like second shift keys but for uncommon functions.  

So, you will want to check if your keyboard has an applications key, especially if you are using a laptop.  If you do not have a dedicated key, it may be hidden as a function that can be toggled using the function key; this may vary depending on your laptop.

What do I do if I don't have an applications key?

It is entirely possible that your keyboard does not have an applications key.  That said, screen reader users are not out of luck!  There is a hotkey built into Microsoft Windows that can perform the same function, and that hotkey combination is Shift + F10.  So if you are in need of toggling a context menu as the quickest path to perform a desired action but do not have a dedicated applications key, you can press the Shift and F10 keys together to open the context menu up.  It's not as simple, and locating F10 can take an extra couple of seconds, but at least you have a backup method of pulling that context menu up!

 

 

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