Keyboard viewer with Dvorak layout

Alternative Keyboard Layouts

Virtually all computer keyboards in English speaking countries are arranged so that the letter keys, if you read from the top-left, start off with Q W E R T Y. This layout is known by those first six letters – The “QWERTY” (pronounced like “k-were-tee”) layout. Most people aren’t aware of the fact, but there are alternatives to this arrangement of letters and punctuation and the alternatives can be very useful for assistive technology.

This article is about the options available, and about why you might want a different key arrangement to usual.

Alternative Layouts and Tablets/Phones

The alternative layouts and keyboards in the rest of this article are all designed to be used with laptop or desktop computers such as MacBooks and desktop computers running Mac OS X.

iPhone and iPad users can use external bluetooth-enabled keyboards, and if you find one of these with an alternative keyboard style it will probably function fine. USB keyboards can be used with an iDevice if you hook it up via the USB camera connection kit from Apple, but this function is not recommended or supported, so can’t be guaranteed to keep working in future.

For those using the iOS “on screen” touch keyboard the layout for that can’t be changed at the moment and keeping two layouts in my head is a bit more work than only keeping one in my head. It’s doable for me, but for somebody who has issues with memory or thinking it could be a problem. Once iOS 8 is released there will probably very quickly be a third-party keyboard available that has Dvorak though.

iPhone on screen keyboard
This QWERTY layout is the only one my iPhone offers with iOS 7.

Nevertheless, for now if you use the on screen keyboard on your iPhone or iPad you are stuck with the standard QWERTY layout, at least for that. Android phones have much more flexibility in this area and I understand that finding variant on-screen keyboards is fairly easy.

Alphabet Order Layouts

For some people with learning, memory, or intellectual disabilities an arrangement where the keys are in alphabetical order makes it easier to find the right key. These layouts are generally used for people who aren’t expected to learn to touch type, and are usually built into keyboards with other accessibility features like large keys and bright colours. Some examples: Bigkeys Keyboard, Kidtech’s My First Keyboard.

Ergonomic Layouts

The other major reason for a different key order is ergonomics: QWERTY keyboards require a lot of finger movement. The six most commonly used letters in common English are E T A O I N, and only of these is directly under your fingertips when you are touch-typing! If you are able to type but have trouble with fatigue, RSI-type injuries, limitations of movement or weakness in your hands then a keyboard layout that needs less finger movement can be helpful. The most common ergonomic layout like this is called the Dvorak layout – it’s the one that I use when I type on a physical keyboard. The keys are arranged like this:

Dvorak keyboard layout
This is the standard Dvorak keyboard layout

If you are used to a QWERTY keyboard it probably looks daunting and weird, but it is possible to get used to it quite quickly. The best part about trying out the Dvorak layout is that it’s built into OS X so you can try it without any cost or fuss.

One Handed Layouts

For those who only have the use of one hand, or can best be productive using one hand on the keyboard and one hand on a pointing device, there are also options. There are physical keyboards designed for one-handed typing as well as variants of Dvorak which are optimised for people typing with just one hand.

There are also physical keyboards such as the Maltron Mouth/Head Stick Keyboard designed for those who type with one finger, or with a mouth stick or head pointer.

Others

This is far from a complete discussion of keyboard types! There are other types of physical keyboards such as those with larger keys, or coloured keys, but the same QWERTY order – RJ Cooper’s LargeKeys is one that has both these things.

Large key keyboard with an iPad.
RJ Cooper’s BIG Blue-tooth keyboard

There are ergonomic keyboards which change the keyboard form but not the layout of the keys, like the QWERTY version of the Kinesis Advantage. There are key guards which assist people with motor issues to hit the key they are aiming for. There are keyboards that are smaller or larger than normal, and keyboards which have keys which are very light and easy to press. There are many other types too – if you google “ergonomic keyboards” or “large key keyboards” or similar phrases that apply to you that you want you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.

Conclusion

You can find a keyboard, or keyboard layout that will suit almost any disability that affects typing. Things to keep in mind include:

  • If the person is already familiar with the QWERTY layout, changing may cause more stress and slowness for a while.
  • If the person has to use more than one computer, or uses a tablet or phone as well as a computer, can the alternative be available on all keyboards they use? If not, will they be able to cope with switching?
  • Will helpers, educators, assistants, etc., be able to support the keyboard or keyboard layout the person uses, if wanted?
  • If you are considering purchasing a new keyboard, try to get a trial first to make sure it’s really worth the money. Specialist keyboards are expensive!

Many years ago, I switched from using an ordinary keyboard to using the Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard with the Dvorak keyboard layout. For about a month it was insanely frustrating as I couldn’t do as much as previously while I was still learning, but I was motivated enough to stick with it. Once I got used to the change, it made my typing faster to type and caused me significantly less pain, so I could spend more time per day typing before the pain would make me stop. It was definitely something that was worth the month of frustration and I still use the Kinesis Advantage keyboard and Dvorak layout today.

– Ricky

8 thoughts on “Alternative Keyboard Layouts”

  1. Great article Ricky. You really know your keyboards! I know this is mainly a Mac site; but in terms of “other” mobile devices, one of the biggest strengths of Android OS is the ability to load up alternative keyboards and use these within apps. There are heaps of options in terms of alternative layouts and configurations (eg split, larger keys); but also they can have features like rate enhancement and even alternative access (scanning and headmousing).

    • David: You are absolutely right, flexibility in on-screen entry methods including keyboards and weirder things like Swype is ABSOLUTELY one area where Android is streets ahead of Apple! I envy that ability a lot, even for me it’s frustrating to switch between Dvorak on my mac and QWERTY on the iPhone.

  2. A couple of points:

    On iOS, there’s some decent app support for using the Fleksy keyboard. It’s a QWERTY keyboard, but it has, hands-down, the best autocorrect ever. Really. It’s magic. You can type whole sentences without looking at the keyboard.

    http://fleksy.com

    I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the Chubon keyboard layout. I found it as one of the alternatives packaged with AssistiveWare KeyStrokes. It’s optimized for typing with one finger (or say, a mouse). I haven’t found an ideal way to use it on iOS. And though I tricked HippoRemote into acting as a Chubon remote keyboard, it’s not a quality solution.

    http://ihatestairs.org/2013/01/12/more-efficient-typing-with-the-chubon-keyboard-layout/

    • Thanks Blake! Chubon is an option I recall now that you mention it from KeyStrokes but never used so I hadn’t remembered it. I’ll have to show you my KeyStrokes keyboard sometime – it’s actually a marginally modified a-z layout but it’s sufficiently compact that it’s very efficient for typing I find.

      Flesky is something I hadn’t explored but since you recommend it I’ve downloaded it and I’ll add it to my (enormous) pile of things to try. There are now no less than twenty posts for ATMac in idea or draft form … I may drown in them! Want to write for me?

      • Yeah, I’d absolutely like to write for you. Send me an email at the address associated with this comment. Let me know what you have in mind. I’d be glad to write about Fleksy. I also have a few other ideas.

        I’d love to see your KeyStrokes panel. I’ve adapted mine pretty heavily to make web development faster. And the single best improvement I made was adding a key that summons Alfred, the incredible app launcher.

  3. Thank you for writing this article. I did try to contact apple directly question regarding having dvorak: right and left keyboards built in to iPhones and iPads. I did not get other than a auto response that they do not accept ideas from the public. I am boycotting iPads until they do.

    Helena

    • Helena: You’ll be very pleased to learn that in iOS 8 third-party keyboards will be available. That means any company can create a keyboard layout and I would anticipate that Dvorak in all its forms will be available quite soon. Once it comes out I’ll amend the article.

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