Keyboards for Users with Dexterity Impairments

Some people have trouble hitting the right keys accurately or holding down one key while pressing another.  There are hardware and software solutions that provide accommodations; this article covers the basics and will help you get started.

Software Solutions

Utilities

All operating systems have two utilities that change how the keyboard works.  StickyKeys lets the user press keys one at a time to get combinations like "CTRL-P" for printing, instead of having to hold one key down while pressing another.  Filter Keys reduces unwanted keystrokes.

Windows XP: Both utilities are under Start Menu-->Control Panel-->Accessibility Options-->Keyboard tab.

Windows Vista and 7: Go to Start Menu-->All Programs-->Accessories-->Ease of Access-->Ease of Access Center-->Make the keyboard easier to use.

Macintosh OS X: Both utilities are under Apple Menu-->System Preferences-->Universal Access-->Keyboard.

On-screen Keyboard

An on-screen keyboard is a software program that represents the standard keyboard, but can be accessed using the mouse, either by clicking directly on the desired key, hovering over it for a set period of time, or clicking the mouse when the desired key is highlighted. Starting with Windows 7, the built-in keyboard also has word prediction, so that users can select common words and save themselves from having to type every letter. More sophisticated on-screen keyboards are available commercially.

Windows XP: Go to Start Menu-->All Programs-->Accessories-->Accessibility-->On-screen keyboard

Windows Vista and 7: Go to Start Menu-->Accessories-->Ease of Access-->On-screen keyboard

Hardware Solutions

Alternative keyboards may have different key layouts, shape, or size, or require less force to activate the keys.   Some keyboards have large keys with large print, serving both low vision and dexterity problems. A popular type of alternative keyboard is the split keyboard, which have a physical split between the two halves of the keyboard, usually between the 6-7, t-y, g-h, and b-n keys. Split keyboards come in two varieties: fixed-split and adjustable split. The latter type is more appropriate in most situations, since these keyboards can be configured in a variety of ways by adjusting the distance between the two sides of the keyboard, tilting the two sides so the typist's hands are slightly to fully vertical, or both. Some models permit complete separation of the two sides of the keyboard, usually so that each side can be tilted to a separate angle.

Other types of alternative keyboard may have smaller or larger keys than the standard, may be designed for one-handed typists, may require less pressure than standard keys, or may be an entirely original design.

Note that you can often find a suitable alternative keyboard in mainstream office retailers or computer stores, including online stores.

Speech Recognition

People who cannot be productive with any keyboard may be able to use speech recognition effectively. Although not fool-proof, this technology continues to get more accurate, easier to set up and use, and less expensive.

Limitations

Regardless of the ergonomic quality of a keyboard setup, users may still experience repetitive strain injuries if they type for too long without taking breaks. Guidelines recommend taking at least four breaks per hour--three for thirty seconds and one for three minutes--during which time users should take their hands off the keyboard and mouse, and close their eyes or look away from the monitor.

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