by Janet Hopkins
There is no getting around the fact that computers are an integral part of life for many of us. Whether we love them or despise them, computers help us to connect with others, find information, accomplish tasks more efficiently, and entertain ourselves. People with arthritis sometimes find using the computer a challenge, because pain, limited dexterity, and mobility problems can make sitting at a desk and operating a standard mouse and keyboard difficult or impossible. Fortunately, awareness of problems like these continues to grow, and there are now a number of different assistive technology devices that can help.
What is an assistive technology device? As defined in the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, it is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Assistive technology includes low-tech devices such as pads to rest the hands on when typing as well as high-tech computer hardware and software. A growing selection of assistive devices is available to help people with varying degrees of impairment use computers with greater ease. This article explores some assistive technologies that can help people with arthritis.
For those who work in front of a computer for much of the day, stiff and achy joints present a serious difficulty. For these people (and their employers), the U.S. Department of Labor provides guidance on designing computer workstations to minimize stress on the body. Log on here for useful checklists and information on proper posture and desk height, as well as workstation components that can ease stress on the joints.
Through the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides information to help employers accommodate people with disabilities in compliance with current laws. The online document “Employees with Arthritis” has advice for accommodating workers with arthritis. JAN also offers a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR). Click the “search” button on this site to find multiple research options, including a link for arthritis and a link to products for people with mobility impairments. Go here for more from JAN about arthritis. For even more Web sites with information on assistive technology, see Resources.
The standard keyboard and mouse are the most common devices for “inputting” information into the computer. But while they may be fine for most computer users, they are not the only options. There are a variety of alternatives that include custom keyboards and mice, on-screen keyboards, and voice recognition software that can allow people with arthritis to operate a computer with greater ease.
For those who cannot type easily on a standard keyboard, customized keyboards may make the task easier. These include larger and smaller keyboard models, one-handed keyboards, tented keyboards, and split keyboards. Tented keyboards are divided in the middle and slope down to each side, like a tent. A split keyboard is split into two separated parts. In addition to these, there are many other types of keyboards that are curved, contoured, and padded in various ways. Alternative keyboards such as these have been shown to promote neutral wrist posture. But according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, there is no scientific evidence to conclude that the keyboards reduce the risk of discomfort or injury. Also, switching to a new keyboard layout is going to feel awkward at first and will require an adjustment period. It makes sense to try out any alternative keyboard for a couple of weeks before deciding on a final purchase.
Similarly, the standard mouse is not the only tool for navigating the computer screen and making selections. Mouse alternatives include a trackball, joy stick, touch pad, foot mouse (operated with the feet), and switch mouse (operated with a switch, or easy-to-press button). A touch screen on a computer’s monitor allows you to navigate the screen and make selections using your finger.
An on-screen keyboard is a good option for people who can use a standard mouse, mouse alternative (such as a trackball), or a touch screen but have trouble using a keyboard. An on-screen keyboard is simply a virtual keyboard that is displayed on the screen. If you have a touch screen, you type by touching the “keys” with your finger. If you’re using a mouse or mouse alternative, you type by pointing the cursor at and clicking on the “keys.” For those who have trouble clicking a mouse, some on-screen keyboards allow users to type by simply holding the cursor over the desired keys. You can find discussions of on-screen keyboards here. You can access the on-screen keyboard that is built into Windows XP and Windows ME by clicking “Start,” then “Programs,” “Accessories,” and finally “Accessibility.” For Windows Vista, click “Start,” “Control Panel,” “Ease of Access,” “Ease of Access Center,” and “Quick Access to Common Tools.” Go here for information on accessing the on-screen keyboard for Macs. Other free on-screen keyboards available are Click-N-Type and RapidKeys. There is also the Point-N-Click virtual mouse, which is the companion product to Click-N-Type. Point-N-Click is for people who can move a mouse or mouse-like device but who have trouble clicking it. If moving and clicking the mouse or working with a laptop’s touch pad is a problem but working on the keyboard isn’t, consider using the keyboard to navigate the screen, open documents, and perform other functions. It takes time to learn keyboard navigation tools, but there are resources available to teach you. Keyboarding shortcuts for Microsoft products are laid out here, and the shortcuts for Macs are laid out here. Shortcuts for the Firefox browser are available here. Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari all have accessibility pages.
Last Reviewed on July 11, 2012
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