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 of 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 doesn't go into the technical details of how to use alternative keyboard layouts with OS X - I'll write that one soon. This article is about the options available, and about why you would bother learning a different key arrangement to usual.
Alphabetic Keyboard 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 only one that I'm aware of that is intended for touch typing on is the New Standard Ergonomic Keyboard, and I have no idea what it's like to use.
Ergonomic Keyboard 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:
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 Keyboard 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 keyboard layouts of a regular keyboard optimised for people typing witih one hand - I mentioned a layout optimised for typing with the left hand previously.
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.
You can find a keyboard, or keyboard layout that will suit any disability that affects typing. Things to keep in mind are:
- If the person is already familiar with the QWERTY layout, changing may cause more stress and slowness.
- If the person has to use more than one computer, can the alternative be available on all keyboards they use?
- 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!
That said, 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 master it and it made my typing less painful and faster. I could also spend more time per day typing before the pain would make me stop - it was definitely something that was worth the month of frustration.
- Ricky Buchanan