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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.