Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Alternative Keyboards

By Paula Offutt
Paula Offutt

I recently began researching keyboard alternatives. I don't have carpal tunnel or any other RSI. For other reasons, however, I do need arm support, including for the elbow and shoulder. I evaluated my situation to determine just what I needed. Where am I sitting when I do most of my writing? Where are my arms in terms of angle and support? What position are my wrists in? What are the angles of my neck and head?

I determined that I needed arm support first. I have an excellent laptop table but it only offers support for my wrists, not the arms. Since a supine desk (which would take care of the rest of the body) is out of the budget, I looked into keyboard and arm options.

Some of the arm supports out there are usable. The Wrist Wizard looks odd but I've heard it works. The Ergo Rest and the True Arm Support are similar and come with several options such as mouse support. Another option, without the clamps, is a support such as the Safe ForeArm, which can be used in a variety of positions and places. The Ergoport by DataHand is expensive but more contoured. It also works with non-proprietary keyboards. The problem with contoured arm supports is that they might not be contoured the way you need, since there are different kinds of contours.

While surfing around Office Organix, a major drool site, I came across 'split keyboards,' which are not one continuous piece. Some are still connected at the top and pivot on a point, such as the Kinesis Maxim and the Goldtouch. Others are completely separated into two and even three pieces. This type of keyboard could be positioned to fit my body and my needs.

I found a variety of split keyboards available at different sites. The ErgoFlex, the ErgoMagic, and the Comfort Keyboard were intriguing. The ErgoFlex consists of three interchangeable pieces. The ErgoMagic is the same, except that each piece has its own stand, so the pieces can be tilted to different angles. The Comfort Standard has the three pieces on a single long platform. Each piece can be 'twisted' to accommodate almost any hand position (such as that required by someone with a fused elbow).

Kinesis makes a keyboard called the Evolution, which can be mounted in three ways as well: on certain desk chairs' arm rests; on a track which looks like a keyboard tray; and on a desk mount, meaning it lays flat. The pieces can be separated to a distance of up to 17" apart, and the desk mount has the option of a longer cord between them.

The pieces of the Pace Adjustable are split but attached to a single long base. Each piece, resting on ball joints, moves independently of the others on the 21.5" platform.

I also investigated longer keyboards, such as Kinesis's Contoured, 16.5" long. This keyboard has separated keys on a place for each hand. Your hand can be placed on any of several impressions, which place the fingers and wrists in a relaxed, curled position. Maltron has a similar keyboard that is available for one handed use.

Some alternative keyboards are interestingly shaped. The SafeType is a good example of this. It is in the shape of a block 'U' (putting your hands in the 'handshake' position) and includes mirrors to see the F keys.

The Touchstream is foldable, can be separated, and has no buttons, just membrane keys. It employs the 'gesture' input method for its mouse. It also comes in a mini version that is recommended for one-handed use.

The keyboards discussed so far have a low learning curve and it normally would not take long to learn how to use them. However, there are others that are quite different. The BAT keyboard has only seven keys. Input is done in what they call 'chords'. The BAT was designed for those with limited movement and for those who can use only one hand.

The DataHand is a bizarre one. Each finger fits inside 'wells' and the thumb is in a contoured pocket. Each 'well' has five possibilities: the four compass directions and down. Virtually no hand movement is required; only the finger tips move. I have heard that once you learn it, you can easily increase your typing speed. It also has a single hand version called the DataProof.

The orbiTouch also has no keys. It has two small mounds that your palms rest on. The direction of each hand determines the character input. It can even be used with your feet. The company that produces it claims that average users reach 52% of their previous typing speeds within five hours of use.

Most of these split and/or alternative keyboards also employ macros (up to 64), cutting down even further on finger movement. Several have optional foot switches that are programmable, such as the ALT and CTRL keys. More are now available with USB connections. Several of them come with the option of using the Dvorak layout.

The biggest obstacle to these keyboards is their cost. The DataHand starts at $995 at some sites, while the orbiTouch is 'just' $695. The Kinesis Evolution ranges from $299 to $699, depending on mount and mouse location. The Maxim, the split keyboard with the pivot point, is just $149 (the average cost for the Microsoft Bluetooth wireless keyboard). The arm supports, ranging in price from $130-$299, were not much cheaper. The Support for Humans website has a rental option that makes it possible to try one out first. The rental costs range from $59-$100 and go toward the cost of the keyboard if you decide to buy it.

As for myself, I will most likely get the Kinesis Evolution Desk Mount keyboard. It is in QWERTY with only a few keyboard modifications and the base of each half is wide enough to be its own support. But because of its cost, I will have to wait a bit longer. Meanwhile, I dug out my old wheelchair particle board tray and will mount it to the laptop table. Cost? A few screws and some wood glue.

When I sell my first book or perhaps the second, I will spend big bucks and get the ErgoQuest  500 ($3695) from Office Organix or the EasyChair Workstation from MB Enterprises, each with a 'zero-gravity' recliner.

The point to this article, in case you missed it, is that there are alternatives out there to the keyboards you find at Best Buy or CompUSA. If you consider your writing a career, even a career possibility, think about keyboard solutions. Yes, they are expensive, but so is carpal tunnel surgery.



Forearm support:

Ergonomic Keyboards and trays:  mostly ergonomic furniture and computer gear   all computer adaptable products  their keyboard and mice page   the Ergoport tray  - Kinesis website  - DataHand website  - Maltron website

Supine desks and information:  the supine desk of my dreams  - makers of the ErgoQuest   the Easy Chair Workstation  plans for a homemade supine desk

Other resources:  an excellent resource site; also has information on how to determine your need