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Alternative keyboards

A portrait photo of Jennifer Vesperman

Computer keyboards can come in many different shapes and sizes. People who cannot use normal keyboards might find other designs much easier to use. There are keyboards that can support your hands or be placed in different positions. Some keyboards have fewer keys than normal, and you press keys together to make a letter. One has no keys at all - you move two pads around to make the letters. There are also keyboards with large keys or different layouts.

Posted by: Jennifer Vesperman, on 01/12/09

A portable one-handed keyboard called FrogPad

An alternative keyboard could be a solution for many people with a disability

For many people, online communities provide an important social outlet, a way to remain connected to the world. But what do you do when your keyboard is uncomfortable, aggravates your condition or is totally unsuitable? Speech-to-text convertors work for some people, but are not the answer for everyone. Alternative keyboards could provide another solution.

Many readers might equate alternative keyboards with “ergonomic” models, but there are many more weird and wacky designs available. Some even look like they belong on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek, or in a techno band's music video.

Simple variations

The most common alternative keyboards are simple variations of the standard keyboard. They have larger keys, or coloured keys, or a softer or firmer keypress than normal. There are keyboards with no nooks or crannies, so they are waterproof and extremely cleanable: some even can be sterilised.

The layout of a Dvorak classic keyboardAnother simple variation is the “Dvorak” layout. The standard key layout (Qwerty) is difficult to learn, and many common words require you to use your little fingers, or to use fingers in patterns that become strenuous over time.

The Dvorak layout is easier to learn for most people, and gentler on the hands. Even better, you can switch to it with a setting in your operating system and just buy a set of stickers to put over the keys of your existing keyboard.

A split keyboard divided into two partsSplit keyboards

You may have tried an “ergonomic” keyboard, with separate sections for your right and left hands. But even those can be too narrow, or the wrong angle, especially for people with shoulder problems.

Ergonomic keyboards where the left hand and right hand sections can be pulled completely apart can be a good solution. And for most of these split keyboards, the sections can be not only placed separately, but also tilted at any angle.

A grey vertical computer keyboard. It is split in two and has two sections pointing upwards and a middle section acting as a stand.There are even vertical keyboards available in which you hold your hands in the natural “handshake” angle and type on either side.

Using a vertical keyboard is a little like playing a piano accordion, but without the squeezing.

Manufacturers of vertical keyboards claim that they can eliminate the high-stress postures that contribute to repetitive stress injuries.

Contoured keyboards

If a split keyboard isn't enough, several companies make contoured keyboards. Built around the shape of the human hand, contoured keyboards let you rest your hand almost inside the device.

A Maltron right-handed keyboard that is curved to suit the handWhen using a contoured keyboard, your fingers are practically on top of all the keys your fingers press.

Contoured keyboards are all very different from each other, so if one is uncomfortable, it is still worth trying another.

There are one-hand keyboards with keys arranged to be easily accessible for a one-handed typist. Some are right-hand or left-hand specific, others use the same layout for both hands.

Chording keyboards

A portable one-handed keyboard called FrogPadChording keyboards have very few buttons, some as few as five. You use them by making key combinations, and each combination means a particular character. So one, three and five pressed down together might make the letter “T”.

These make ideal one-handed keyboards, portable keyboards, or keyboards for people who cannot use a standard keyboard.

Chording keyboards range from the almost-normal-looking “Frogpad” to the more exotic “Bat” or the very strange “CyKey”. Try a range of devices and see which one suits you best.

The most unusual chording keyboard is the Orbitouch. 

An black OrbiTouch keyboard which has two large dials for each of your hands The Orbitouch has two domes in a base, and you slide the domes around to create your characters. It doesn't have any keys - you don't press anything. 

If you have limited or no finger movement, but can move your hands around, give this a go!

Foot pedals

Foot pedals can allow you to designate which key each pedal represents.

Three black foot pedals  You might like to use a pedal instead of keys you commonly have trouble with, such as shift, ctrl or space.

Foot pedals can be purchased individually or in sets of two or three.

Other input devices

If you still cannot find a keyboard for your needs, there are a wide range of non-keyboard devices you can get through an occupational therapist. These range from sip-and-puff devices that you use with your mouth, to on-screen or touch-screen keyboards that require only contact with a finger or mouse cursor.

Check them out

Below you can find a list of websites that might be helpful to you:

Dvorak (opens new window)

Typing injury frequently asked questions (opens new window)

AdaptiveTechnology Resource Centre (opens new window)

Infogrip - large key, chording, one-handed and ergonomic keyboards (opens new window)

Bellaire Electronics – CyKey (opens new window)

EkaTetra – EkaPad (opens new window)

FrogPad (opens new window)

Twiddler 2 (opens new window)

BigKeys (opens new window)

Kygo Industries - large key keyboards (opens new window)

TypeMatrix - modified layouts (opens new window)

AbleNet - miniature, coloured, and lower case keyboards (opens new window)

Magic Wand Keyboard (opens new window)

Comfort Keyboard Systems - adjustable keyboards and foot pedals (opens new window)

DataHand - unusual contoured keyboard (opens new window)

GoldTouch - horizontal split keyboards (opens new window)

Kinesis - split and contoured keyboards, foot pedals (opens new window)

Maltron - one handed, split, contoured and large keyboards (opens new window)

Safe Type Ergonomic Keyboard (opens new window)

Orbitouch keyless keyboard (opens new window)

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Readers comments (4)

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Posted by: Jodi Bussell, Wangaratta 10/12/2009 at 01:38pm

A few years ago I searched for different keyboards for a computer we purchased with JAWS software. I found it hard to find information and this is the first time I've seen anything like this list of products. I ended up with a pretty standard keyboard with yellow keys. You've done a great job with this story Jennifer, congratulations.

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Posted by: Jennifer Vesperman, 04/01/2010 at 08:27am

Thank you, Jodi! It's lovely to get feedback, and I hope this helps you when your current keyboard needs replacement.

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Posted by: Andrew, NSW 27/08/2010 at 12:36pm

My dad's in an aged care facility which has the "Broadband for Seniors" kiosk, supplied by NEC. However, the keyboard and mouse are very "stylish" (read: tiny and most inappropriate for seniors, most of whom have vision problems, and/or arthritic hands), and the control panel has been disabled, making it impossible to reduce mouse sensitivity, or access other Accessibility settings. I've supplied Dad with a larger keyboard, and the biggest mouse I could find, but there are other residents who can't use this computer, which is supposed to be for seniors. Grrr... I'm an ergo/Dvorak touch typist; I'd read of the OrbiTouch elsewhere, but this is a very good collection of alternatives. I'd love to know if there's a seniors-specific organisation which could help turn the NEC intiative into something actually useful.

Reply

Posted by: Jennifer Vesperman, 29/10/2010 at 08:22am

Andrew, I'm not aware of a specific organisation which provides special keyboards. However, I did pass the research information for this article to some occupational therapists at the Royal Melbourne Rehabilitation Hospital at Royal Park, and they were delighted with the options. Show this article to occupational therapists - they're the most likely to either know of such support, or know where to get it started.

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