23 January 2009

The Sound of One Hand Typing

Working in the the "assistive technology" field you find yourself on some strange missions. Once, a colleague and I spent an hour searching a used office furniture warehouse, turning every office chair upside down. We were looking, as we explained to the confused staff, for a "left-handed chair."

Yes, they laughed.

But a left-handed chair is a real thing. It is a chair which can be adjusted (height-wise, etc) with the left hand - an important thing when your client is a young man who works in CAD design and has lost all use of his right arm in an accident.

We found the chair, but we needed other things. An appropriately left-handed mouse device. A numeric keypad we could move to the left side of the keyboard, and a keyboard where he could type efficiently with just one hand.

In other case, helping a hotel pool maintainer, also without the use of his right arm, move up to desk clerk, we needed to find a left-hand typing solution. In this case, unlike the one above, this would be a multi-user computer. At busy times up to three or four employees would jump on the same keyboard in quick alternation.

There are lots of reasons to seek keyboard alternatives. First, text entry systems should be chosen for comfort and function, and not left to the crap delivered with most computers. Second, people have unique needs and preferences. Third, my guess is that more people are injured by their keyboards than by any other workplace device: The way the human wrist is forced to bend to type on a flat-straight keyboard buts terrible pressure on certain arteries, causing permanent pain. Fourth, we already know that many of us now type faster on phone keypads than we do on the 'old' keyboards. Finally, not everyone has two working hands.

So when a question about one-handed keyboards recently arrived on a list serve, I watched the options offered with great interest. So what if this question comes to you?

As is often the case, Charlie Danger is a good place to start. He begins with the free re-mapping of your Windows computer keyboard with downloads from Microsoft.

I've had great experiences with the Half Keyboard (or here), a mini-keyboard that merges the left and right halves of the traditional QWERTY board into a 'single half.'

The Half QWERTY (or here), though much more expensive, has the advantage of functioning as a 'regular' keyboard when multiple users are on the same machine. (This proved the perfect solution for a one-handed hotel desk clerk I worked with - there just was not good room for multiple keyboards.)

The Frogpad (or here), which began the conversation, is great for those who can learn it, and who have the necessary multi-finger dexterity.

OATS has a couple of great solutions, the "phone keypad" based Dkey with phone-type predictive spelling, and the gesture driven Qwriting. Both completely free, of course.

Tapir is another free phone keypad based solution.

For a physical version of the phone keypad, the Cre8txt system is a wonderful solution. "[T]his device [claims the website] captures the writing skills that so many young people have developed themselves using their mobile phones. It probably isn't going to surprise you to know that most young people can touch type at phenomenal speeds without even looking at their mobile phone."

And just to suggest - Speech Recognition, either Dragon or within Windows Vista (or simply using Dial2Do) - is always another solution.

The trick is - as always - that we have a flood of choices. Choices we hardly ever see in workplaces and never see when schools begin to teach "keyboarding." Choices which enable rather than disable or frustrate.

The way you "type" simply does not matter. The words, the ideas, the communication - that's what matters. Using two hands, or one, or none.

- Ira Socol


HomerTheBrave said...

I was thinking about the fact that the SMS texting keypad system is a kludgey workaround, and is a horrible design in and of itself, when I realized: The QWERTY key layout was designed to be inefficient so it would prevent typists from jamming the strikers in their typewriter.

Technology is so weird. :-)

Also want to point out that, for instance, Macs come with handwriting recognition software, called Ink, which requires a tablet of some kind. Maybe not ideal, but also an option. I'm sure there's comparable Windows software.

narrator said...

Yes Homer, it is all strange. We have the intentionally slow QWERTY and the Bell "ABC" key system that was never intended to get beyond "PEnnyslvania 6 - 5000." Tablet handwriting recognition is indeed another way I should have mentioned. But it frustrates the hell out of me. When I do letters the "wrong way" it has no idea.

- Ira Socol

hand2mouth said...

Thank you, Mr. Socol -- you're the first assistive tech/special ed professional I've come across who factors ergonomics into the selection process. I get that kids don't like being different sometimes and it's less work upfront to go with the standard keyboard/mouse, but how many specialists warn about RSI to their one-handed clients if they go with that option and do a lot of typing in school/work? RSI in a one-handed person is inevitable sooner or later, and it's not a trivial thing...sorry, I'm a bit vigilant about that from personal experience. I can see where you'd want to know QWERTY at least casually, but what about also having a one-handed keyboard or Dvorak keyboard for steady use at home or something -- has anyone gone "bilingual" that way?