Keyboard commands and shortcuts are an integral part of accessible computing. Don’t believe me? Try taking a seat behind an original Mac, which not only did not use keyboard commands, but the keyboard didn’t even have cursor keys. Happily, this is a situation Apple remedied years ago, and for Windows, keyboard commands have been available ever since the prehistoric times of DOS and Windows 3.1. These days even touchscreen readers like VoiceOver and TalkBack include keyboard functionality. Keyboard commands are that important.
Keyboard commands are so ubiquitous that people with visual impairments can sometimes take them for granted. We know the ones we use but tend to be lazy and uninterested in finding and learning more, no matter how much extra speed and ability they might give us.
Happily, this is not the opinion of Dean Martineau, author of Flying Blind’s must-read Top Tech Tidbits newsletter. His new book, Windows Keyboard Power User Guide, published by Tech for the Blind, is a compendium of useful keyboard commands, covering how to find, use, and customize them for greater speed and access.
What You Get
We all have our preferred learning styles. Some of us like to follow along with an audio presentation or demonstration. Others prefer to delve into written text, either via speech or going hands-on with braille. The good news is that with Windows Keyboard Power User Guide you have your choice. The book is available in Word and as an audio MP3 presentation that follows the text chapter by chapter with demonstrations and a few asides.
I was offered access to both formats. I doubled up on the first two chapters, using JAWS to review the text and then my iPhone to listen to them. After that I alternated back and forth. The learning experience was more or less equal using either format, though there was one chapter, "Editing the Default .JKM File" that I listened to originally and then felt it necessary to do a second reading of the actual text. Also, if I refer back to this book to refresh my memory on something, and I doubtless will, I will likely go to the text. The book does not include any appendices.
What You Learn
The book is divided into three main sections: Windows, JAWS, and Word. Martineau states right up front that the book is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to any of these topics, but “Rather, the goal is to make you a more effective keyboard user in each of these environments.”
As the author rightly states, when not running a Windows application, most of our time is spent either navigating between apps or opening new ones. This section is devoted to making both of these tasks easier. He begins at the Windows desktop, describing first how to add application shortcuts and then how to create a Ctrl + Alt + keystroke hotkey to make opening and switching to most apps much easier. Martineau also describes how to create desktop shortcuts and hotkeys for webpages and document files, though for the latter his method seems a bit labored, involving copying file names, creating a new desktop icon, and then adding the file name. I have always found it much simpler to locate the document in File Explorer, right-click with the Applications key, and then using the Send To option, Desktop, create shortcut.
Next, Martineau slides into an excellent discussion of switching between apps. Most users, including myself, rely on the Alt + Tab command to switch between open applications and documents. Martineau is of the belief that this command has outlived its usefulness in favor of the newer Windows + Tab (Task View) command and in this section he definitely proves the point. He demonstrates that with the Task View command you can keystroke jump to your desired application or file, and, with a press of the Tab key, access a command history and repeat any you find there.
If you’re like me, you often have five, six, or even more open windows, and pressing Alt + Tab can be an exercise in frustration because the window you are searching for has inevitably worked it’s way to the other end of the list, and once you open that window and retrieve that snippet of text you are looking for the trip back is just as long because you accidentally stopped along your trip forward. This scenario doesn’t arise if you use Task View. Unfortunately, if you are a long-time computer user like myself, the muscle memory is simply too strong, and even as I write this paragraph I needed to switch to Outlook for a second and how did I get there? You guessed it: Alt + Tab. After reading this book, however, I feel even more motivated to make this switch.
Martineau winds up this section with some tips regarding the Windows Taskbar. If you haven’t used the Taskbar to arrange your most used applications so they can be opened or switched to with a single hotkey, this chapter alone will prove worth the cost of admission.
There is one hotkey Martineau does not mention that I would add here. If you’re a constant Word user like I am and frequently bounce from one document to another, instead of using Alt + Tab or even the Task View command to find your way back and forth, give the Ctrl + F6 hotkey a try. It moves you forward through open documents. Adding the Shift key moves you in reverse.
In later sections the author switches between JAWS and NVDA when he demonstrates techniques for Windows, but this chapter is dedicate to JAWS. Martineau does not spend any time at all describing how to use the screen reader; that is not his mission. Instead he focuses on making JAWS work harder for you by demonstrating the use and modification of many of its keyboard commands and features. You would be surprised how infrequently a user will enjoy the benefits of a particular JAWS keyboard command if he or she doesn’t know how to access it, or even that the hotkey exists. The chapter called “Finding and Identifying Keystrokes” is a must-read for JAWS users who haven't made themselves acquainted with the various onboard help resources.
So you found that JAWS keyboard command, but it doesn’t make any sense. How are you supposed to remember that JAWSKey + F6 is the command to list the document headings? You’d much rather press JAWSKey plus the letter H to perform this task, but that keystroke is set up to place JAWS hotkeys in the Viewer, and you never use this command. Fear not! In this section, Martineau takes you step by step through the process of reassigning JAWS keystrokes to a layout that’s more to your liking. He also teaches you how to edit the JAWS default .JKM file to add layered commands, such as the JAWSKey + spacebar & J command to activate a JAWS command search. He demonstrates this by creating a JAWSKey +Space & K layered “AppendSelectedTextToClipboard” command. By default this command is issued using the hand-twisting JAWSKey + Windows + C hotkey. The author does not explain why he chose to create a layered command instead of changing to a less awkward single keystroke command.
The third and final section of this book begins with a pair of chapters describing NVDA and JAWS hotkeys and quick keys designed to make you more productive using Word. Then he describes one of the best and easiest ways to find help with an obscure or difficult to locate Word command: the Alt + Q Tell Me feature available while working in Word and other MS Office applications. And there are definitely a good many obscure and difficult-to-find features and commands in Word.
The old 80-20 rule applies to MS Word. We spend 80 percent of our time using 20 percent of Word’s capabilities. The trouble is that the 20 percent is markedly different for each of us. You may use tables in every document you create. I rarely use tables, but frequently deal with revisions and comments from others.
Happily, Word includes hotkeys for nearly all of its myriad features, and for those without a designated keyboard shortcut, you have the ability to create a shortcut of your liking.
Two of the most overlooked and underutilized Word features are the ability to customize the Quick Access Toolbar with Word commands you can execute with a single keystroke, and the even more powerful ability to add and change keyboard shortcuts for scores of Word commands. Want to add “clear all formatting” to your Quick Access toolbar so you can issue the command with a press of Alt + 1? Need to create a hotkey to center the page vertically, or reassign the Ctrl + Shift + A hotkey that converts text from lower to upper case and vice versa to something easier to remember? Martineau explains how to do all of these in easy-to-follow, step-by-step fashion.
I would highly recommend this book to all Windows users, with a single caveat. Be careful how many changes to the JAWS and Word keyboard structure you make at once. A few keyboard changes and enhancements can make you much more productive. Too many at once and you may become overwhelmed and confused.
Also, remember the changes you make will affect only your computer. A while back I was frequently reviewing Web tables, and for the sake of convenience I changed my screen reader’s cell navigation quick keys to the letters A, S, D, and F for left, right, up and down cell respectively. This worked great…until I had to use someone else’s computer and couldn’t remember what the default commands for these were.
Be especially cautious with your personal computer or laptop if your network admin has disabled any command modifications on your work PC. Even if this is the case, the content of this book will likely still be well worth the price.
Windows Keyboard Power User Guide is available from Tech for the Blind in MS Word ($15), interactive MP3 ($15), or a Combo Pack of both editions ($25).
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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