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Keyboard-only Access to Windows for “Single-Digit” Typists

Copyright © Alan Cantor 1997. All rights reserved.


This paper describes the current status of keyboard-only access to Windows 95 for single-digit typists — individuals who operate a computer with one finger, toe, or stump; or who use a head-stick, mouth-stick or similar appliance. The analysis emerged while planning and implementing an accommodation for an adult who types with one toe. The paper asks whether keyboard shortcuts are useable in practice; establishes requirements for Windows-compatible expanded keyboards; and highlights barriers faced by anyone who demands keyboard-only access to Windows.


Manipulating a mouse or other pointing device may be difficult for people who type with a single finger, toe, or stump; or who use a head-stick, mouth-stick or similar appliance. Computer accommodations for these people — who henceforth will be referred to as single-digit typists — generally include a regular or modified keyboard; key latch software; and perhaps mouse emulation software or a pointing device. Most single-digit typists use sticky keys to capitalize letters, and many have difficulties using conventional pointing devices.

For better or worse, Windows 95 (and its inevitable successors and spin-offs) seems destined to become the standard personal computer (PC) operating system (OS). A number of related developments give rise to the hope that the Windows environment will be fully accessible to keyboard-only users:

  1. Microsoft incorporated hundreds of keyboard shortcuts directly into the OS. See, for example, Microsoft Windows Keyboard Guide (1), a comprehensive list of keyboard conventions that are supported by most Windows 95 and NT 4.0 applications.
  2. Microsoft encourages software developers to build programs that can be operated by keyboard alone. The Microsoft® Windows® Guidelines for Accessible Software Design states that "An application should be designed so that a mouse is not required for its use." (2)
  3. Microsoft bundles StickyKeys with Windows 95. Unlike some other key latch programs, StickyKeys allows latching and locking of the three modifier keys (Shift, Alt and Ctrl). Simultaneous latching and locking of the modifier keys is necessary to use keyboard shortcuts to full advantage.
  4. Windows 95's mouse emulation software, MouseKeys, gives the user control over the pointer via sixteen keys on the numeric keypad. Greater precision is achievable by using MouseKeys in conjunction with StickyKeys.


Notwithstanding these recent trends, questions remain about the viability of keyboard-only access to Windows 95 for single-digit typists. This paper explores three issues:

  1. Windows is arguably the most mouse-intensive computer environment ever devised. Functionality is highly concentrated in the pointing device. The new "shortcut menu," for example, normally is activated by clicking mouse button 2 on a screen object. Toolbars, which are not easy to access by keyboard, are now ubiquitous. Although keyboard equivalents for mouse functions exist, the question remains as to whether they are useable in practice.
  2. Single-digit typists often benefit from using modified keyboards, i.e., keyboards that are extra-large or small, adjustable, programmable, reconfigurable, made for left-handed people, and so on. To the best of my knowledge, all IBM-compatible adapted keyboards (and the interface systems that allow them to communicate with a PC) use their own proprietary sticky key and mouse emulation software. Three expanded keyboard systems were evaluated to determine their compatibility with Windows 95's accessibility options.
  3. Not all software developers provide good keyboard interfaces. In these cases, how efficiently and effectively can applications be used by keyboard alone?


I conducted this research while providing accommodation services to an adult with cerebral palsy. He was enrolled in a training program to upgrade his computer skills. His most reliable control site is his left foot, and he prefers to type with his big toe. He cannot easily manipulate a pointing device. I was assigned to select and adapt a Windows 95 computer system, and train him to use it. Over eight weeks I taught him Windows 95 basics, a word processor, an e-mail program, a Web-browser, and access software.


Mouse keys vs. keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard-only access to Windows is possible with a standard keyboard using MouseKeys. However, not everybody can use MouseKeys, and the technique is extremely cumbersome. A simple drag and drop operation may require ten different keys and 30 or more keystrokes. Choosing an item from a pull-down menu is easier, but still tedious.

Keyboard equivalents, on the other hand, are quick and positive. For example, in Word 7, pressing a three-key sequence selects Page Setup… from the File menu: Alt, F, U (or F10, F, U). Clearly, single-digit typists benefit from using these shortcuts whenever possible.

Access problems with expanded keyboards

Not all expanded keyboards are equal to the task of keyboard-only access. A single-digit typist can take full advantage of Windows 95's keyboard interface only if all keys on the standard keyboard are available. In addition, the keyboard must support latched and locked modifier keys, singly and in combination, with all keys, including the mouse keys. Unless these criteria are met, functionality will be compromised.

My client and I considered three expanded keyboard systems: the Intellitools IntelliKeys; the TASH WinKing; and the Unicorn Model II keyboard/Darci Too Computer Control Device. Neither the WinKing nor the Unicorn/Darci met these criteria. The IntelliKeys satisfied both.

Other factors (relating to the size and spacing of the keys and his seating posture) compelled us to choose the Unicorn/Darci Too system. He liked the bigness of the Unicorn, and was willing to trade a modicum of function for long-term physical comfort.

There is no "perfect" expanded keyboard for single-digit computer work. When helping a single-digit typist select a new keyboard, tradeoffs must be made between productivity, technical features, health and safety factors, and personal preferences.

Access problems associated with Windows 95

Keyboard-only access to Windows 95 is problematic. The keyboard interface appears to be an afterthought, and consequently, is poorly integrated into the overall design. Although keyboard access is almost always possible, it is not particularly useable.

Paciello (3) defines product usability in terms of five factors: how easy it is to learn, how easy it is to remember, whether the product promotes productivity, whether the product tends to produce errors, and user satisfaction. In terms of keyboard-only access, the OS fails on many counts. A few examples:

  • The StickyKeys flag, which provides valuable feedback to single-digit typists, is extremely small, and may be hard to see. Furthermore, the flag does not differentiate between latched and locked states.
  • Some keyboard shortcuts are onerous. For example, Ctrl+Esc, Esc, Tab, Tab moves the focus from the current task to the desktop. (Keyboard shortcuts that are based on the two new Windows keys are unavailable to individuals who use expanded keyboards.)
  • Inconsistencies in the keyboard interface complicate access for keyboard-only users. For example, there are two "standard" methods to move focus between tabbed pages in a dialog box: Ctrl+PgUp, Ctrl+PgDown and Ctrl+Tab, Shift+Ctrl+Tab. In some contexts, the first method works; in others, the second; sometimes both methods work; occasionally, neither method works.
  • A number of features of the OS cannot be accessed without the mouse pointer. Paradoxically, there is no keyboard equivalent to invoke one of Windows 95's accessibility features, the floating modifier key status window.

Access problems associated with Windows 95 applications

Significant barriers to keyboard-only access stem from developers who ignore keyboard interface design standards, such as those set out by Vanderheiden & Lee (4), Microsoft (2), and others. Ironically, Microsoft's own software products occasionally miss the mark. For example, in Word 7: certain help screens ignore navigational keystrokes; files displayed by the Open and Save As… dialog boxes cannot be sorted without a pointing device; and the Open dialog box is difficult to use because keyboard navigation begins near the bottom of the box instead of the usual position near the top. These barriers are maddening to users and completely unnecessary, given that the principles of accessible software design are widely known.


The keyboard-only interface of Windows 95 is basically accessible, but not especially useable. It could be better. However, improving the interface is more than a matter of fixing programming errors and inconsistencies. In light of the fact that keyboard-only access continues to be problematic, I recommend that existing standards be reconsidered and revised. Significant improvements to the interface are achievable — if developers and manufacturers collaborate with people who demand keyboard-only access to Windows.


1. Snyder, Maryanne K. & Lowney, Gregory C. Microsoft Windows Keyboard Guide. E-mail message. 16 October 1996.

2. No author. The Microsoft® Windows® Guidelines for Accessible Software Design: Designing and Building Applications that are Usable by People with Disabilities. Redmond, WA.: Microsoft Corporation. 1995:12.

3. Paciello, Michael. Accessibility By Any Other Name Is ...Usability. EIA/CEG "CE Network News." December 1993.

4. Vanderheiden, G. C. & Lee, C. C. Considerations in the Design of Computers and Operating Systems to Increase their Accessibility to Persons with Disabilities (Version 4.2). Madison, WI.: Trace R&D Center. 1988.


I thank Penny Parnes, David Graham, Barbara Roberts and Christina Tracy for sharing their ideas with me on this subject; and the staff of The Training Coordinating Group for Persons with Disabilities, Toronto, for making this project possible.