JAWS Lesson 10: The Virtual Cursor

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What's the Virtual Cursor?

Up until now we have been focusing on keyboard navigation, and navigating across the web using elements. But as we near the end of our course, we need to discuss something a bit more pressing. The Virtual Cursor.


There are 3 types of cursors in the JAWS ecosystem.

  • PC Cursor: the carrot, or blinking cursor on the screen. The cursor often seen in word processing documents.
  • JAWS Cursor: the cursor that goes where ever the mouse can go.
  • Virtual Cursor: The cursor we have been working with throughout most of this course. It allows you to use your arrows and keyboard navigation to navigate applications such as web browsers. It is not visible.

More Explanation Please

Let's think about the web pages we have been exploring. When we press the h key, we are telling JAWS to navigate to the next heading and read it to us. When we press the b key, we are telling JAWS to navigate to the next button and read it to us. We are not interacting with the actual website until we hit enter to select that button, or link, or checkbox. It is just simply being read to us.

You might like to think of the virtual cursor as JAWS's eyes. When you press keys, you are talking to or interacting with the screen reader first. JAWS is telling you what it sees.

Generally speaking, the virtual cursor makes navigation similar to the experience of navigating through a word processing document. But, there are some websites, programs, or applications in which the experience with the virtual cursor on, causes the user experience to be clunky and inefficient. There are keyboard commands embedded in the application or website that cannot be accessed with virtual cursor on. These keyboard commands have been designed by the developers of the website, and make navigating their application easy and efficient. But the only way to access this efficient, easy, less time-consuming method of navigation is by turning off the virtual cursor.

Turning on/off the Virtual Cursor

You can think of the virtual cursor as a light switch. You can toggle it on and off. To do so, you will press the JAWS key and the letter z. For desktop layout, this means insert + z, and for laptop layout, this means caps lock + z.

Real World Application

The Google Suite applications are a great example of different user experiences with and without the virtual cursor on. Did you know that when you go to Google Drive, or g-mail, or Google Calendar there is an entire toolbox of keyboard commands that you could be using to make your experience run much more smoothly?

These commands are not screen reader specific. Anyone can use them. Me, you, your friends, your teacher, ANYONE!

The only problem is that when the virtual cursor is ON these keyboard commands do not work, because when you press keys on your keyboard, you are first talking to the screen reader, and not the Google application. We need to place your screen reader in a mode that allows the keys that you press to be directly communicated to the application instead of the screen reader. We need to turn the virtual cursor off.

The scope of this course does not involve us diving into the intricacies of Google Suite applications with the virtual cursor off, but I invite you to check out the following links once you've built an understanding of the virtual cursor.

Google Drive Keyboard Commands without Virtual Cursor
Google Calendar Keyboard Commands without Virtual Cursor
G-mail Keyboard Commands without Virtual Cursor

Pro Tip: To quickly enable keyboard commands in a Google application, press the ? and a dialogue box will open up. Use your tab key until you hear "enable". Press enter. Tab to the "close" button. Press enter. You are set!


Want to see the virtual cursor on/off phenomenon in action?

Visit the website below. When you first load the page, you will have the virtual cursor on by default. Press any letter on the keyboard. Listen to JAWS describe what it sees. Next, turn off the virtual cursor by pressing JAWS key + z. Then press any letter on the keyboard. Listen to what happens next!

Once you are done playing the piano, come back here by pressing alt + left arrow.

Play the Piano with Your Keyboard


What is the virtual cursor?

It is the cursor that goes where the mouse goes.

It is the cursor that allows you to use single letter navigation and the arrows to navigate applications like the internet.

It is the blinking cursor in a word processing document.