Let's talk key remapping, custom keystrokes, and the keyboard commander

I decided to set up my new Mac book pro 2016 as a clean install, which means I have been busy setting up my keyboard remapping and commander. I thought I would take this opportunity to run through all of the custom things I have set up, in order to share my experiences, and invite others to do the same.

I'm going to be talking about remapping the keyboard, the voice over keyboard commander, and custom system keyboard short cuts; each of these topics have unique factors to consider, and I'll do my best to explain these factors as I touch each section.

Remapping keys

To remap a key means you have completely transformed one key to another.

I use Karabiner elements to remap my keyboard.
Karabiner elements is a stripped down version of the Karabiner app; I have used Karabiner for a long time now, but the full version does not currently work in Mac OS Sierra, so for now Karabiner elements is a fine alternative.

The main reason I remap my keys is to have VO keys on the right side of the keyboard. This is great for keystrokes like VO f, VO g and VO a; I have become so dependent on this modification that I can barely stand using the Mac without it. To make this work I remap the slash physical key to the command key. I also have the caps lock key remapped to slash so that I can type question mark and slash. For me this works really well, and I would highly recommend it.

I also remap several of my media control and function keys. I have the play/pause key directly to the left of the volume keys, F 10, and then rewind and fast forward directly to the left of them, f 9 and f 8. I also have f 1, f 2, f 3, and f 4 remapped to the num pad 1, 2, 3, and 4 keys; I'll explain my reasons for these changes later.

system wide and application short cuts

I won't spend much time on this section, because I don't have too many of these short cuts set up, but I thought it would be important to mention these functions. In system preferences, keyboard, short cuts you can set up almost any keystroke you can imagine. In the system section you can browse dozens of pre existing functions which can be mapped to any keystroke you want. You can also create your own function in Automator and it will show up in this section. For example, I have an Automator service set up so that I can hit command option shift d to hear the definition of any word I have selected.

In the app section of the keyboard system preferences pain you can create a short cut for any option in any menu app. For example I have several short cuts set up for Amadeus Pro. This type of function might be nice to remember if your considering the new touch bar. You can already make any function key perform almost any action, and this with real physical keys.

Voice over keyboard commander

The voice over keyboard commander, found in the voice over utility app, can be used to customize a great number of things. I'm going to just give a basic list of how I have things set up. I have the num pad commander set up so that hitting 1 will launch Safari, 2 launches messages, three iTunes, and 4 mail. If any of these apps are already opened hitting the keys just moves focus to the app in question; I love knowing I can jump to my most used apps with only one key no matter what.

The rest of my commander set up is with the basic keyboard commander. I use either of my option keys as the modifier key. Option 1 through for activates Automator work flows I have created. option 1 moves focus to the first level of my home folder in the finder, with documents downloads etc. 2 brings me to a google search field where I can instantly perform a google search. three brings me to my applications folder, and 4 brings me to a blank document in the grammrly grammar checking web sight where, I can paste and check any text.

Next I have a few VO keystrokes remapped to keystrokes that make more sense to me. Option c copies last spoken phrase, option w twice opens the window chooser, and option x moves mouse focus to voice over curser.

The rest of my commander set up is for me to be able to use the arrow keys and quick nav as little as possible. As a long time Mac user I have realized that I use the arrow keys too much, and I do not believe it is ideal to constantly shift my hands from a typing position to an arrow navigation position. This might be my own insanity, and I do not expect that the following set up will interest most people.

Option with J, K, L, and I moves me left, down, right and up respectively. If you try this setup you will realize that it feels pretty close to arrow keys and it behaves in a very similar way. This means you can move around without moving far from the home row. Unfortunately the J, K, L, I, set up does not work exactly like arrow keys, so some more modifications are needed for the set up to really work.
Option shift K activates an item, in other words VO space. Option U stops interacting, option o interacts, option shift j moves to the beginning, option shift l moves to end. If your interacting with text option j, k, l, and I will move you through the text. Option n and option coma moves by character. I also have most of the quick nav single keys, like h for heading, b for button, etc, set up, just with the option key, So I never have to turn on quick nav.

As crazy as all of this sounds, it actually works pretty well, with one major exception; this setup does not work great when doing heavy duty text navigation, such as selecting text.

I would love to hear what other people have done with key remapping, short cuts, and the keyboard commander. My set up works for me, but it is still a working progress, and I would love to hear thoughts about how I could improve it. specifically I would love to hear from anyone who knows a way I could make the J, K, L, I keys behave exactly like arrow keys, with modifiers held down. Perhaps, this could be done with another remapping app, but Karabiner elements can not currently make remappings that are modifier dependent.

I know this post has been terribly long and boring, but I hope it has been interesting or helpful to someone.


Brilliant! Thank you!

I have been contemplating purchasing the 2016 MacBook Pro! Currently, I am a windows 10 user! Using jaws of course! These kind of user tips really help me to determine if macOS will be right for me in a laptop configuration. A couple of off topic questions for you please.
I am a touch typist so, how do you find the new butterfly keyboard second generation?
I appreciate your key mapping regarding arrow keys. I am concerned that there is not a lot of tactile differentiation on the new keyboard and the arrow keys. How have you found it so far?
Finally, I am sure you have not played with the 12 inch MacBook and I know that particular machine has great speakers. I also know that the 2016 MacBook Pro has great speakers. Did you compare both models which one do you think is better sound wise?

Any other thoughts and comments regarding the machine would be great! Thanks again man, awesome information I truly do appreciate it cheers… Rocker…

Very nice!

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Very nice! Thanks for posting this. I always learn a lot from these posts, including this one. Thank you!
I do most of my navigating with Quick-Nav. I use Keyboard Commander and the right option key. Since the Sentence and Paragraph modes have gone on hiatus in Quick-Nav, I started remapping the keys nearest the arrow keys. Example, I remapped / (slash) to "read next paragraph." Add shift to Read Next Sentence or Previous paragraph/Sentence. I use "." (period) to Read the VO cursor, which actually reads from the VO cursor to the bottom. Following your examples, I may have to remap my fav apps to the number keys as well.
Very nice post.

Thanks for the reply, arrow keys etc.

Hi Rocker,

It really means a lot to me that you found my post informative; I will do my best to answer your questions; if you have more Mac questions feel free to post on this forum again, or send me a privet message through the site.

I wrote a lot about the new Mac in a previous post, which you can read with the below link if you are interested.
Regarding the new butterfly keyboard; the first thing I would say is that I think you should try and see it yourself, if at all possible, simply because it has been so polarizing. With that said, I am one of the few that really like the new keyboard over all. I think I type faster on it, and it's negatives are very minor and easy to adjust to. I would say it's biggest negative is indeed the arrow keys; they are usable, but pretty different compared to my old Mac book pro; I will try and explain these changes. The up and down keys are half the size of the left and right keys. This result in the keys not being in the standard upside down print T formation. Instead of having that up arrow sticking out by itself above the other keys, all of the keys are together in a uniform block. I think the main negative of this new layout is that the old up arrow was very tactilely distinct, because there was empty space on either side of it. Now the arrow keys are totally surrounded by the shift, option and slash keys.

With all of that said, I would not describe the arrow keys as being difficult to tactilely distinguish. They are on the very bottom right of the keyboard, so the edge of the keyboard is a very good landmark; also the shift key is large and directly above the arrow keys, so that is easy to find. I have no issue instantly moving to the arrow keys, or any other keys, and I think most people can quickly adapt to the butterfly keyboard, if they want to. The function keys, f 1, f 2 etc, are also smaller, but very usable. With that said, I know I might be exceptionally good at adapting to changes, my constantly evolving custom key strokes are a testament to that. However, as a point of comparison, a few years ago I had to write a few papers on a Mac book pro who's keyboard was exactly like my usual machine, only larger because it was a 17 inch; I found that keyboard more difficult to adapt to then the new butterfly keyboard.

When it comes to speakers, the 2016 Mac book pro is pretty great. I have never tried the 12 inch Mac book, but the speakers on my new machine are much better then the speakers on the old Mac book pro. I believe the old speakers were on the bottom of the machine, the new machine's speakers are directly to the left and right of the keyboard; they are loud, clear, and have ok stereo separation for a laptop.

As far as any other thoughts I have on moving to the Mac, that is a very large topic with lots of personal opinions on both sides. First of all, I would strongly recommend that any window user not buy the touch bar model, because if you want to run windows on bootcamp having physical function keys will be inarguably better. I think the most important thing to ask yourself is why you want to move to the Mac. I am a dedicated Mac user, but I would probably not recommend the Mac as the default choice for many blind users. The Mac was the first computer that I became fluent with, and a Mac got me through college; I am very fixed in the Mac ecosystem, and dependent on apps such as Amadeus pro and pro tools. Those are some of my specific reasons for staying with the Mac, but there are many reasons to avoid the Mac.

There is no accessibility for tagged pdf's and that is probably not going to change any time soon. Microsoft word in windows is better with word processing then anything we have on the Mac. The built in Mac spell checker is perhaps five percent as powerful as the Microsoft word spell checker. When it comes to third party apps and services designed for the blind the Mac is often an after thought, because more blind users are on windows; for example there are very few accessible games on the Mac. Voice Over is shackled by the fact that Apple is not paying a lot of attention to improving any Mac software, and voice over rarely receives major upgrades. Also the lack of third party screen readers on the Mac means we are totally at Apple's mercy, and as long as apple keeps the Mac tightly locked down that is not going to change.

Rambling rant over, when you choose Mac you do have the option of also running windows in bootcamp or VM where fusion. I have always kept a bootcamp partition on my Mac, but I rarely ever used it. I will probably do the same on my new Mac, although I believe I will not be able to run windows seven, and it sounds like windows ten is not an ideal option right now.

I think it does boil down to each individual's own needs and priorities, but as a Mac user you are paying twice as much for an OS that has some major accessibility short comings.

app short cuts etc.

I'm really glad that you got something out of my post Nicholas. The fact that the keyboard commander allows me to minimize having to use the arrow keys, while allowing you to maximize your ability to use the arrow keys, really illustrates the flexibility of this feature.

By the way, if you are interested in setting up your function keys to launch your favorite apps, I believe there is a better way to do it then the method I outline in the original post. As I was writing I realized that you can probably just create services in Automator, and then set up the hot key in system preferences. This would keep you from having to remap your function keys to the num pad keys. I'm going to keep my set up the way it is for the moment, since I don't see any major drawbacks, but services and system preferences probably makes more sense for making your function keys launch apps.


Thanks Tree for the informative post,. I do find your recommendations to remap the keys very useful, especially for navigating texts with Apple removing so important text navigation options from the rotor. About command option shift D to get a definition for a word, do you get the definition from the dictionary app? Do you get it in voice or voice and text so that? I do find this very useful for my work as a translator. Opening the dictionary app and pasting a word then navigating to the list of definitions is getting tedious for me. Again, thanks for the post.

Define word Automator service

The Define word service is self voicing, so it speaks independently of voice over. From what I can remember, when I set up the service I could choose which voice I wanted to use, which dictionary source, there were many options, and the speed of the voice. I normally don't like self voicing things, but I actually kind of like it this way, because I can continue to write while it is speaking, and you can shut it up with command. So I hear a pretty speedy Alex defining my words.

Automator is pretty strait forward to use, but if you do set up the define word service, and you run into trouble, I would be happy to answer any questions.