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Through the Wormhole: Exotic Computer Shortcuts for People with Disabilities

Copyright © Alan Cantor 1999, 2000. All rights reserved.

Introduction: Wormholes in Nature and Windows

A wormhole, according to astrophysicists, is a warp in the fabric of the universe that connects distant regions of space. Wormholes are theoretical objects allowed by Einstein's theory of general relativity. It is not known whether they exist; the theories that account for them are too recent to have been discounted or proven. If wormholes exist, however, they could provide a means for circumventing a fundamental assumption of modern physics — that the upper limit at which objects may travel is the speed of light. Objects passing through a wormhole would, in theory, traverse space much faster than would be possible had they travelled a straight-line path. In other words, wormholes are shortcuts through space and time.

Although wormholes in nature have not been detected, "wormholes" in the Windows operating environment are plentiful. These shortcuts allow users to perform tasks faster — and with less energy — than is possible using "standard" techniques. Many shortcuts are built into Windows. Other shortcuts are features built into standard applications or made possible by special software.

This presentation highlights six techniques for drilling wormholes through Windows. These shortcuts — many of which are undocumented or poorly documented — allow people with mobility, sensory, learning, and cognitive disabilities to work faster and easier.

Table 1: Typographic conventions for representing keyboard commands
Pattern Meaning Example
modifier+X Hold down the modifier key and press X Close Window: Alt+F4
X, Y Press X, release it, and press Y Open File menu: Alt, F

Modifier = Shift, Ctrl, or Alt, alone or in combination. X and Y represent keys.

1. Desktop shortcuts

Desktop icons

A fast way to access an application, folder, web-site or document is to create a shortcut and place it on the desktop. To activate the icon, double-click it, or select it and press Enter.

Before activating an icon, the desktop must be exposed. If one (or more) windows obstruct the desktop, the windows must be moved, resized, or minimized. There are two hotkeys for minimizing all windows and putting focus on the desktop: Press Windows-key+M (if the keyboard has Windows-keys), or Ctrl+Esc, Alt+M (if it does not).

Once focus is on the desktop, select the icon by typing the first letter of the icon name, and activate it by pressing Enter. If more than one icon starts with the same letter, press the letter again. If you can type quickly, enter the first several letters. Hint: If you use this technique, rename desktop icons so that each starts with a unique letter or number.

Custom shortcut keys (CSKs)

Custom shortcut keys (CSKs) are the prime Windows wormholes for eliminating complex key sequences and mouse manipulations. Because CSKs are integral to Windows, they work in almost every context. Custom shortcut keys are generally the fastest, most reliable way to launch an application or open a document, web-site or folder.

Over 350 CSKs are available, including:

  • F1 through F12.
  • One, two or three modifier keys + F1 through F12.
  • Two modifier keys + any key except those listed below.
  • Three modifier keys + any key except those listed below.

The following keys cannot be used: Esc, Tab, Spacebar, Enter, Backspace, Delete, Print Screen, Pause, Windows-key or Application-key.

Examples of valid CSKs include F2, F12, Shift+Ctrl+W, Alt+Ctrl+Scroll Lock, Shift+Ctrl+Alt+F1, and Shift+Ctrl+Alt+Num-5. If a CSK conflicts with an access key in a Windows application, the access key will not work.

How to create a CSK

  1. Create (or locate) a shortcut for an application, folder, web page or document.
  2. Paste the shortcut icon on the desktop.
  3. Open the Properties dialog by right-clicking the icon and picking "Properties," or by selecting the item and pressing Alt+Enter.
  4. Go to the Shortcut page tab.
  5. In the "Shortcut key" edit field, press your hotkey.
  6. Click "OK" or press Enter.

2. Keyboard commands

Keyboard commands vs. keyboard techniques

Using the keyboard is, in general, faster than using the mouse. Mastering the keyboard interface, however, is not easy. It is not enough to memorize keyboard equivalents. Keyboard-only access demands new approaches to working with Windows. For example, instead of "scrolling" through a drop-down list using up and down arrow keys, it is faster to type the first letter of the item, or "fast forward" through the list using PgDown and End. Using the keyboard interface entails mastering new techniques and memorizing keystrokes.

Examples of standard keyboard commands

There are hundreds of standard keyboard commands in Windows and Windows programs.

Standard Windows keyboard commands

Table 2: Commands that work in virtually all Windows applications.
Activate the menu bar Alt or F10
Open a specific menu on the menu bar Alt, underlined letter
Open a specific menu on the menu bar F10, underlined letter
Application (or Context) menu Shift+F10
Close application or dialog Alt+F4 or Alt, Spacebar, C

Default Word keyboard commands

Table 3: Default commands for recent versions of Microsoft Word. (Note: There are hundreds of keyboard commands in Word. This list represents a small sample.)
Select a word F8, F8
Select a sentence F8, F8, F8
Increase font size Ctrl+]
Go back to the four most recent insertion points Shift+F5
Rotate case (Hello → HELLO → hello) Shift+F3

Default Excel keyboard commands

Table 4: Examples of frequently-used Excel commands.
Edit a cell F2
Select an entire row Shift+Spacebar
Select an entire column Ctrl+Spacebar
Format a cell Ctrl+1
Go to the next sheet tab Ctrl+PgUp

3. Macro software

What is macro software?

A macro is a sequence of commands for performing a specific task. A macro can simulate keystrokes and mouse input, activate applications, execute commands (e.g., maximize or close a window), and combinations of these. Examples of tasks that lend themselves to macros include: Insert a name and address; launch or switch to a program; increase the CD-player volume; and copy data from one application and paste it in another. The tasks performed by macros are usually repetitive, and executing a macro saves time and energy.

Macro activation methods

Macros can be made to activate in several ways:

  1. Hotkey: The macro is activated by pressing a hotkey.
  2. Code: The macro is activated by typing a code.
  3. Event:The macro is triggered when a specific program is launched or a window opens.
  4. Timed: The macro activates at set intervals or at specific times.

Macro applications

Macro Express and Keyboard Express (www.macros.com) and ActiveWords (www.activewords.com) are examples of macro software that benefit people with mobility, sensory, learning and cognitive disabilities.

4. Abbreviation expansion techniques

What is abbreviation expansion?

Abbreviation expansion is a technique for "compressing" text or images into simple text. An abbreviation expands after it is typed — usually after pressing a punctuation key, Spacebar or Enter.

Use abbreviation expansion to correct spelling and capitalization errors, and to insert phrases, canned text, foreign characters, pre-formatted text and images. Abbreviation expansion is especially helpful to people with learning disabilities and mobility impairments.

Abbreviation expansion applications

Although the most versatile abbreviation expansion utilities are stand-alone applications, such as Instant Text (www.twsolutions.com), some macro programs include abbreviation expansion features. In addition, word processors usually have abbreviation expansion capabilities, e.g., AutoCorrect in Word and QuickCorrect in WordPerfect.

Abbreviation expansion techniques

Table 5: Five abbreviation expansion techniques
  Abbreviation Expansion
Simple pn pencil
pns pencils
email2 ssmith@pencilpusher.com
Phrase ss Sandy Smith
startletter Thank you for your recent letter.
Punctuation e/ é
L= £
Auto-capitalize alberta Alberta
csun CSUN
Preformatted wbclogo White, Black and Clear Attorneys
25 Grace St · Suite 200 · York

5. Software Customization

The Windows environment can be customized to better meet the needs of people with disabilities. Many of these techniques are documented, but underused.

Customize the appearance and function of Windows

Display Properties

Go to the Display Properties/Appearances (in the Control Panel) to adjust the size, colours and spacing of menus, title bars, application backgrounds, icons, message boxes, scrollbars, selected items, ToolTips and many other items.

Keyboard Properties

Use the Keyboard Properties to adjust repeat rate and repeat delay and keyboard layout (e.g., left-or right-handed Dvorak and others).

Mouse Properties

High visibility pointers are included in Mouse Properties in some (although not all) Windows releases. High-visibility pointers can be downloaded from www.microsoft.com, or ordered from third-party software vendors. Biggie, from R. J. Cooper (www.rjcooper.com) also features screen wrapping and mouse button lock.

Accessibility Properties

To augment StickyKeys, MouseKeys, SoundSentry, and so on, use supplementary features in the Accessibility settings. For example, the mouse pointer can be sped up or slowed down (using Ctrl and Shift keys, respectively), and a modifier key can be made to lock (by pressing it twice). These options are turned off by default, but are useful to some people with disabilities.

Customize the appearance and function of Microsoft Word

Word is probably the most customizable mainstream application available today. The appearance and function of the user interface can be altered; menus and toolbars can be tailored to meet individuals needs; keys and keyboard commands can be remapped; and new functions can be created and added to menus, shortcut menus and toolbars.

The presenter is writing a book on customizing Word for people with disabilities, tentatively called Enhancing the accessibility of Microsoft Word 2000 using built-in commands, macros and Visual Basic procedures. This book details how to create enhancements to Word that make the program more accessible to people with sensory, mobility, learning and cognitive disabilities.

6. Editing by voice

Voice recognition technology has almost come of age. It has great potential, both for people with and without disabilities. Most people, however, do not use the technology to advantage. Editing by voice is especially cumbersome; many users edit documents as though they were operating a typewriter. The typewriter mentality hinders efficient editing. Different techniques are needed.

Dictating versus editing

Mainstream reviews of voice recognition products usually evaluate speed, accuracy and compatibility. Overlooked in many reviews is the ease with which text can be edited.

The lack of good editing tools particularly affects writers who have difficulties using keyboards and mice. Editing is crucial to writing. The ability to revise — change words, rearrange sentences and paragraphs, eliminate fluff, clarify meaning — is as important a consideration to one's choice of dictation software as speed and accuracy.

Choice of voice recognition programs

The presenter recently evaluated three voice recognition systems: IBM ViaVoice, Dragon Systems NaturallySpeaking, and L+H VoiceXpress. Of the three programs, only NaturallySpeaking had comprehensive correction and editing voice commands. (Philips FreeSpeech has not yet been reviewed).

Editing techniques

Apply these principles to increase the speed and ease of voice editing:

  • Accept the limitations of voice recognition technology. Once you can achieve good accuracy, do not try to perfect your voice files. They will never be perfect.
  • Do not correct misrecognized words that are usually interpreted correctly. It is faster to undo or select the entire utterance, and dictate it again.
  • Use the program's proprietary editor if your dictation program works best in it. Copying text into your usual word processor after a dictation session is easy.
  • Navigate using "Insert Before text" and "Insert After text" instead of "Move" commands. Specifying two or more target words increases the accuracy of the command, e.g., "Insert After achieve good accuracy," "Insert Before accept the limitations."
  • Edit using "Select" commands instead of backspace and delete commands. Select the text and dictate. It is not necessary to explicitly delete the selected text; the dictated words will replace the selection. Use "Select From text Through text" if your software supports the command.
  • Revise phrases rather than individual words, even if some of the words are correct. For example, to change the first comma in this sentence to a colon, say "Select for example comma," pause for a split second, and say "for example colon."

Conclusion: Travels through wormholes

The "wormholes" described in this presentation allow people with sensory, mobility, learning and cognitive disabilities to perform certain tasks quickly and effortlessly. The presenter uses shortcut techniques when accommodating and training people with disabilities, and has documented many success stories:

  • An individual with a severe upper-body mobility impairment consumes 20 to 30 seconds to choose a menu item using MouseKeys. After learning keyboard-only techniques, she completed the task in one to two seconds. Thus, for menu selection, her speed increased ten- to thirty-fold, and she made fewer errors.
  • A Call Centre employee who types with one finger regularly uses seven different applications. Using macro-generated hotkeys to switch between programs and to copy text from one application to another, she handled nearly twice as many callers per hour.
  • A graduate student with a learning disability was easily distracted by complex screen layouts. By simplifying the appearance of the programs he used, and removing nonessential menu and toolbar items from his word processor, he stayed focused three to four hours longer daily.

These anecdotes evince that in Windows, as in nature, wormholes are the fastest route to where you want to go.


Cantor, Alan. An Evaluation of Keyboard-only Access to Windows for "Single-Digit" Typists. In RESNA `97 Proceedings. Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America Annual Meeting, 20-24 June 1997. Pittsburgh, PA. (The above link is an updated version of the paper).

Cantor, Alan. Enhancing the Accessibility of Word 97 Using Built-in Commands, Macros and Visual Basic Procedures. Handout distributed at pre-conference workshop, 26 June 1999, RESNA `99, Long Beach, CA.

Cantor, Alan. An Evaluation of Keyboard-only Access to Windows for "Single-Digit" Typists. Paper presented at Developers Day, WWW8 Conference, Toronto, Ontario, 14 May 1999.

No author. Microsoft Office 97 Visual Basic Programmer's Guide. 1997. Redmond, WA.: Microsoft Press.

No author. The Microsoft® Windows® Guidelines for Accessible Software Design: Creating Applications That Are Usable by People with Disabilities. Redmond, WA.: Microsoft Corporation. May 7, 1997 Edition.

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

Snyder, Maryanne K., Gregory C. Lowney and Jeff Witt. Microsoft Windows 98 Keyboard Guide. 30 July 1998.