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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 1

Trainers' Corner

Driving Windows for the First Time

If you're a novice computer user or have been sitting on the fence about making the jump to the Microsoft Windows operating system, then read on. If you're unsure if you can hack Windows, this article demonstrates some of the basic skills necessary for survival and teaches you the fundamental keyboard commands that control the operating system and application programs. You don't have to know everything there is to know about Windows to start being productive. All you need is some basic knowledge of how to start programs, interact with them once they're running, and use some basic keyboard commands to navigate.

It's in your best interest to learn as much as you can about Windows because Windows is the dominant force in the computer industry and represents such a large segment of the market. If you're attending school, working, or just using a computer for leisure activities, it's more than likely that you'll have to deal with a Windows-based computer sooner or later. Isn't it time you learned to drive Windows and add this important skill to your resume? Don't misinterpret this article as a misinformed cheering section for Microsoft Windows. It isn't. The point is that you'll have to cope with Windows sooner or later. It makes sense to face that fact and do whatever it takes to learn Windows and its associated applications. Moreover, learning Windows will show you how to operate a computer system, and that skill is transferable to other computer platforms. With all this in mind, let's roll up our sleeves and get started.

Hardware Basics

Before you can learn Windows, you need to know something about the physical hardware of your personal computer (PC). Your PC contains several important components that work together in concert with one another. The mother board that contains the central processing unit (CPU) is the heart of the PC and controls the system's components. These components include system memory, the video display, peripheral cards, printers, modems, and the all-important hard disk drive. For our purposes, the most critical component is the hard disk. The hard disk is where all the files and information are permanently stored on your PC. Think of the hard disk as a vast file cabinet, crammed with useful data. But before you can access this vast storehouse of information, you have to turn on the power.

Booting Up

The process of starting your computer is known as booting up. For our purposes, I assume that you have a working screen reader, large-print program, or other assistive technology installed. For the best results, I recommend that you configure your screen reader, large-print software, or other adaptive equipment to start automatically when you boot up. This will make your adaptive technology immediately available every time you start your PC.

When you turn the power on, make sure that no floppy disk is inserted. If one is inserted, eject the disk and put it in a safe place. Taking out the floppy disk will allow your system to boot from the hard disk, not from a floppy disk by mistake, and will prevent your system from failing to boot by trying to start a disk that does not contain an operating system.

The operating system is stored on the hard disk and loads into memory when you turn on the power. The operating system is the master control headquarters for your PC and is responsible for controlling functions like storing and organizing files, printing documents, displaying information on the screen, managing memory, and handling a myriad of application programs.

Applications are software programs that serve particular purposes like writing documents, browsing the web, managing budgets, scheduling appointments, or sending and receiving e-mail. Microsoft offers many applications: Word for word processing, Access for database development, Excel for spreadsheet/accounting work, Internet Explorer for web browsing, Outlook for e-mail and scheduling, and PowerPoint for creating audio/visual presentations, to name a few.

The Desktop

Once Windows loads, the first screen you'll see is known as the Desktop. The Desktop is essentially the main menu for your computer and contains links to programs and documents stored on your hard disk. You can start any of these programs or documents simply by moving to one of them with the arrow keys. Once you've selected one, you can start it by hitting the Enter key. But don't worry about that for the time being. In a minute, we'll take a look at how to access the main menu of Windows with a single keystroke.

The Task Bar

The Task Bar is located below the Desktop, at the bottom of your screen by default, and provides you with useful information. As its name implies, the Task Bar gives you a convenient listing of all the currently running applications. In other words, it shows you all the programs that you have loaded into memory. The Task Bar also contains the Start Button, which when activated takes you to the Start Menu.

The Start Menu

The Start Menu is the main menu for your computer and contains a list of all the installed applications on your system. When you install a new piece of software, its name is automatically added to the Start Menu. You can quickly and easily bring up the Start Menu with a single keyboard command.

The hot key to bring up the Start Menu is Ctrl + Escape. It will bring the focus to the Start Menu and open it. You can use Ctrl + Escape from anywhere within Windows to go directly to the Start Menu. If you get lost, you can use Ctrl + Escape to get back to home base with a single keystroke. You can then use your arrow keys to move up and down the Start Menu.

Let's use the Start Menu to bring up an application and see how easy it really is. Use Ctrl + Escape to pop up the Start Menu. Use your down arrow key until you hear "Programs" and then hit Enter. Hitting Enter opens the submenu. Continue using your down arrow key until you hear "Accessories" and hit Enter again. Use the down arrow again until you hear "WordPad" and then hit Enter. This will launch the WordPad application, a text editing program that comes with every version of Windows.

The Start Menu also lets you save a lot of keystrokes by using so- called Accelerator Keys to move directly to an application, simply by typing the first letter of that application while the Start Menu is popped up. For example, if you wanted to go directly into the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser, you would hit "I" to go directly there.

WordPad lets you create, save, and print documents and provides an example of a typical Windows application. Start by typing some text into WordPad just to get a feel for how it works. Use the Enter key to start a new line. Don't worry about getting to the end of the line, because WordPad handles all that for you. You can use the Backspace key to erase any mistakes you make along the way.

When you're finished with the document and want to save it, Windows lets you do so with another command keystroke. Simply use the Ctrl + S command to bring up the Save Dialog box. The Dialog box asks you for a file name for the new document. Just enter a short file name, something like "test," and press the Enter key. You've just saved the document to your hard disk. Remember that this command is available in most Windows applications.

Printing is also accomplished with simple keyboard commands within most applications. You can print single or multiple copies of a document if you have a printer connected to your system, and you can do it with a single keystroke. Just strike the Ctrl + P command, followed by the Enter key, and your printer will print one copy of the entire document. This command is also available in most Windows applications.

To create a new document, you can use the Ctrl + N command keystroke. When you execute this command, the current application forces you to save the current document and then clears the workspace. If there are no changes to be saved, then Windows will clear the workspace, and you're ready to start a new document. You can then type in a new document and save it with Ctrl + S, print it with Ctrl + P, and exit with Alt + F4 when you're finished.

If you want to work on or view an existing document stored on your computer, you can use the Open dialog box to enter a file name using the Ctrl + O keyboard command. When you strike Ctrl + O, the program shows you a dialog box that asks you for a valid file name, and the application will open it for you. This handy keyboard command works for most applications.

Now that we're finished with WordPad, let's exit simply by hitting the Alt + F4 command. Hitting Alt + F4 removes WordPad from memory and returns the focus to the Desktop. Keep in mind that the Alt + F4 command is standard for shutting down Windows applications.

Multitasking

Now that you've seen how to start an application and how to save, print, and exit, let's look at how to run more than one application at a time. Windows is a multitasking operating system, capable of managing multiple applications. This can be handy if you want to do two or more things at the same time, and who doesn't? In the next section, you'll see how to start more than one application and how to switch from one application to another using the Task Bar.

Let's start the first application by going to the Start Menu with Ctrl + Escape. Type "P" or use the down arrow to move to "Programs" and hit Enter. Then type "A" or use the down arrow to move to "Accessories" and hit Enter again. Type "W" or use the down arrow until you hear "WordPad" and hit Enter, which will launch WordPad into memory.

Once WordPad is loaded, hit the Ctrl + Escape command again to go to the Start Menu. This will push WordPad into the background, where it remains running and is still loaded in memory. Now use the down arrow to go to "Programs" again and hit Enter. Then hit the down arrow to go to "Accessories" and hit Enter. Arrow down until you hear "Calculator" and hit Enter, which will launch the Calculator program into memory. Don't forget that WordPad is still loaded, running in the background. Now you have two applications running at the same time: WordPad and Calculator. To prove this, let's go to the Task Bar and browse through the list of running applications.

Hit Ctrl + Escape to go to the Start Menu. Now hit the Escape key to pop down the Start Menu and use the Tab key to move to the Task Bar. If you overshoot, just keep hitting the Tab key until you hear Task Bar again. Along the way, you'll hear Desktop, Start Button, Task Bar, and Tool Bar. You can't get lost because the Tab key moves you in a circle.

You can use your left and right arrow keys to move along the Task Bar. As you move, you will hear the names of each running application. Think of the Task Bar in this context as a menu of running applications. To switch to an application displayed on the Task Bar, just hit the Enter key. Use the left and right arrow keys to move to WordPad and press Enter. That will take you directly into WordPad, pushing the Calculator into the background. Remember that when you bring the focus to an application in this way, all other applications are pushed into the background. All applications remain loaded in memory until you exit them with ALT+F4.

Switching Quickly from One Application to Another

When you have more than one application running, you may want to switch quickly to one of them and then switch back again. Switching is useful when you're, say, editing a document when the phone rings, and you have to take a quick e-mail message for a coworker. Windows shortcuts let you switch quickly to the e-mail program and then switch back to your word processor to continue editing.

Simply strike the Alt + Tab key sequence to switch from one application to another. Just hold down the Alt key and press the Tab key. It's important to keep the Alt key firmly depressed while you strike Tab. Repeated strikes of the Tab key while Alt is held down will move you through the list of running applications, one at a time, and then back to your starting point. Your screen reader will announce the name of each application as you move through the list. When you hear the application you want, just release the Alt key, and you're there.

Once You've Learned One, You've Learned Them All

In the good old days of DOS, which everyone seems to remember with nostalgic fondness, nearly every application was radically different from the others. DOS applications made it difficult to transfer knowledge gained from learning one program to another because of this lack of standardization. But when you start running Windows, you'll soon learn that all applications, no matter their function, share a common set of commands. With few exceptions, Windows applications use the same standard keyboard commands for performing tasks like saving, printing, exiting, and other functions. So I'm not stretching the truth by saying that when you've learned one Windows program, you've virtually learned them all.

Taking the Bull by the Horns!

It's in your best interest to learn and master the Windows operating system. Windows and other Microsoft products are a fact of life for independence in business, at school, and even at home. If you're going to be successful in any of these pursuits, you need to have some basic facility with Windows to compete for a job, get an education, or even take part in online social interaction.

Take the bull by the horns and do whatever it takes to learn Windows: read the online help provided with any Windows product, study audio or braille tutorials, run an interactive tutorial on your PC, attend training classes, or ask a friend to help you.

If you can't afford to purchase a Windows-based screen reader or large-print program, download one of the free trial demos available from the various adaptive software vendors and start learning. Just do whatever you need to do to get Windows under your belt and focus on how it will improve your employment, educational, and even personal life.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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