What are the options for someone who cannot operate a standard keyboard?

Date Updated

The keyboard can be the biggest obstacle to computing for a person with a mobility impairment. Fortunately, those who lack the dexterity or range of motion necessary to operate a standard keyboard have a wide range of options from which to choose. Pointers can be held in the mouth or mounted to a hat or headgear and used to press keys on a standard keyboard. Repositioning the keyboard to the floor can allow someone to use his feet instead of his hands for typing.

Before purchasing a complex keyboard option, evaluate the accessibility features that are built into current popular operating systems. For instance, the Accessibility Options control panel in current versions of Microsoft Windows contains settings that can make a standard keyboard easier to use. For a person who has a single point of entry (a single finger or a mouthstick), use of StickyKeys allows keystrokes that are usually entered simultaneously to be entered sequentially. FilterKeys can eliminate repeated keystrokes for a person who tends to keep a key pressed down too long or presses keys multiple times because of uncontrolled movements. Check the settings for these features and experiment with different time delays for optimum effect. Macintosh operating systems have similar features in the Easy Access control panel.

Consider using the features common in popular word processors, such as Microsoft Word, to ease text entry. The AutoCorrect feature of Word allows sentences or blocks of text, such as an address, to be represented by unique and brief letter sequences. For example, entering "myaddr" could be set to automatically display one's address in proper format. Long words can be abbreviated and entered into the AutoCorrect settings to increase typing speed and accuracy.

A keyguard is a plastic or metal shield that fits over a standard keyboard. Holes are drilled into the guard to help an individual with poor dexterity or hand control press only the desired key without inadvertently pressing other keys. Keyguards are available from a variety of manufacturers.

Alternative keyboards can be considered for a person who cannot effectively operate a regular keyboard despite changing settings or use of a keyguard. For someone who has a limited range of motion, a minikeyboard may be considered. If a person has good range of motion and poor dexterity, a keyboard with extra-large keys can offer a good solution. Several vendors offer an array of alternative keyboards, including those that are configured to relieve the effects of repetitive stress injuries (RSI).

When physically activating a keyboard — whether through changing the settings or switching to an alternative keyboard — is not possible, evaluate the utility of a virtual keyboard. A virtual keyboard appears on the computer screen as a picture of a keyboard. A mouse, trackball, or alternative pointing system activates the keys on the screen and inserts the appropriate keystrokes into the desired program. A person can enter text by clicking on specific keys on the keyboard image. Modifier keys, such as CONTROL and ALT, can also be accessed, as can the function keys. Some virtual keyboards incorporate word prediction to increase entry speed and may include alternate layouts in addition to the traditional QWERTY layout found on standard keyboards.

For more information, consult Accessible Technology and Working Together: Computers and People with Mobility Impairments or view the video by the same title.