Sunday, February 20, 2011

Typing with One Hand

Typing with One Hand

As a court reporter with over 20 years experience, I have to be able to transcribe at the speed of speech (140-180 words per minute). I'm fortunate to have two good hands, but it's still a pretty difficult row to hoe. For a person with a single hand this would seem to be a near impossible task. However, I hope to be able to pass on some of my experience to assist those who wish to be able to type on a computer, single handed.

There seem to be several schools of thought on what an individual should do to accomplish this task.

Firstly, just "live with it". Learn to type on the standard QWERTY keyboard. Why? Well, because you'll always be guaranteed access to a computer no matter where you go. Sounds good. But consider that history has shown that the QWERTY keyboard is very unhandy (pardon the pun) to use, even for a two handed user. When having to type with one hand, the user is going to be sweeping the entire keyboard, left to right, top to bottom at all times, having to hold the hand suspended by the upper arm and shoulder muscles. This can give rise to an extreme case of injury, called over use syndrome, which in its worse case, can render the remaining arm useless, which would have incalculable consequences for one's lifestyle. An alternative is use the built in functions many operating systems have to change the keyboard to DVORAK layout. This is better than QWERTY, but that's not a very strong recommendation. That would be pretty easy to achieve.

Secondly, use speech recognition, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. As a dedicated user for over 10 years, I can't recommend it highly enough, particularly now that I'm using version 11. 180+ wpm and better than 99.9% accuracy. Brilliant. Except, if you are using a computer other than your own, you're up the creek, as the saying goes.

Thirdly, create your own "shorthand" using the in-built functions available on most word processors, that enable the operator to type just a couple of letters, and then expand them into the full text. This is like using a mobile phone with the SMS system - eg cul8a - see you later - except that you're not relying on a stranger to understand what you are meaning, because you can tell the computer what it means and it will expand your abbreviation immediately, and accurately.

Lastly, buy a specialised keyboard designed for single handed use. These are not common, nor are they cheap. And again, you are stuck with the difficulty of not always being able to access your special keyboard whenever you want it.

So there seems to be this common thread of "lack of access". But is this really as big a difficulty as it first appears? It is if you are itinerant, without your own computer, and rely on libraries or internet cafes. However, these days laptop/ notebook computers are becoming fairly inexpensive and common. And if you are using a computer for your work, then you will probably have a dedicated computer to use yourself. So the difficulty disappears somewhat.

In 1986, I changed over from using a QWERTY keyboard, to using a Maltron layout. This design is something which is entirely different to QWERTY, and has been thoroughly researched and designed. It gave me such an edge in speed and accuracy, as well as being highly ergonomic, that I've never considered (voluntarily) going back to QWERTY. However, in this context, it is NOT very good for a single handed operator.

There is however, a range of Maltron keyboards designed for exactly that purpose.

This photograph shows the right hand keyboard. The left is nearly a mirror image, except for the function keys at the top.

The basic principle behind this layout is that the less commonly a key is used, the more difficult it is to access. Which makes perfect sense to me.

Further, the 3 dimensional design of the keyboard reduces the movements of the hand to a minimum, instead relying more on opening and closing the fingers.

Now when this keyboard is used in conjunction with WordPerfect and its unlimited ability to create abbreviated typing forms, there's a very real prospect of the single handed typist being able to reach a fairly high speed and accuracy.

Rather than repeat what I've already written elsewhere, I'll merely link to this blog, which gives a very detailed description of how to create and use keyboard shorthand.

Although I've been using two hands all my life, and using the Maltron since 1986, when I combined the Maltron single hander with the shorthand, I found myself transcribing at about 12 wpm after only an hour and a half of use.

As explained in my blog, since the operator is making up their OWN abbreviations, and not learning some else's, there's little need to memorise anything, except the location of the keys. Further, using this technique, there is an incentive to use the easiest keys for the operator to hit, rather than the operator having to go to the more difficult keys unnecessarily, as dictated by the spelling of the whole word or expression.

UPDATE: I created a youtube video showing basic single handed audio transcription.