Pecking order: Typing with cerebral palsy

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The majority of my freelance writing up to this point has consisted of a slew of articles related to accessibility and vision. But, thanks to my cerebral palsy, I’m in the unique position of being able to speak on accessibility from another angle: motor skills.

I’m fortunate in that my cerebral palsy is mild in severity, but it’s severe enough that I suffer from partial paralysis on the right side of my body. The reduced strength and movement makes doing anything with my limbs difficult, sometimes even painfully so.

Playing against type

Perhaps the most challenging task for me is typing. I find it extremely difficult to type properly with both hands, because the fingers on my right hand aren’t nimble enough to move about, pressing the correct keys. What this means is that my accuracy and speed in typing is not what it could be, and it takes longer to write. Moreover, it’s quite painful as well, because the muscles in my hands are so atrophied that they cause pain and fatigue rather quickly. In addition, thumb typing on iOS’s virtual keyboard, particularly on the iPhone, is out of the question. My right thumb doesn’t have the full range of motion to keep up with my left.

As I’ve found solutions to accommodate my visual needs, so too have I found methods of coping with the partial paralysis. There are two main tactics I use to help me type.

First, when typing on my Mac, I find it easier and most comfortable to type with my two pointer fingers, with my left doing most of the work. Yes, it’s effectively hunting-and-pecking, but it’s the only way I’ve found to type efficiently. While this method is certainly slower than standard typing, I’ve discovered through lots of practice that my speed and accuracy is fairly good, especially given my circumstances.

Secondly, when on my iPhone, I find that using the pointer finger or thumb on my left hand to type while holding the phone in my right hand works best. Again, speed and accuracy are compromised, but it’s the most comfortable approach—and it ultimately gets the job done.

A question I often get when I mention my typing difficulties is whether the type of keyboard itself makes a difference. My answer is typically no. The two mechanical keyboards I use the most are the one built into my MacBook and my Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for the iPad. In my experience, both keyboards are equally comfortable to type on. As for the iOS keyboard, I have no issues there either, except for always tapping the Dictation key when I mean to hit the spacebar. (I am highly annoyed by this.)

Talking about it doesn’t help

Speaking of the Dictation key (no pun intended), using dictation is perhaps the most obvious way to assist in typing on iOS and OS X. (Siri is also serviceable in this regard.) Even for users who can type just fine, using Dictation is convenient because it saves one from having to do a bunch of typing. In fact, Apple touts using Dictation and Siri to get things done by just asking.

In theory, that sounds wonderful, and the perfect solution to my problem. In my case, however, the issue with using my voice to do things on my devices is the fact that I stutter. My speech impediment, yet another side effect of my cerebral palsy, makes it difficult for iOS to accurately parse my requests. I often am frustrated by the errors that come back (e.g., in Siri’s case: “I didn’t get that”), so I figure it’s easier (and ironically, faster) for me to type instead of hampering an already-limited speech-recognition system with a limitation of my own.

I’m admittedly self-conscious of my stutter, even though I know it’s not that bad, and doesn’t bother anybody. Ideally, I’d love to use Dictation and Siri more often to send emails or text messages, etc. I marveled at John Siracusa, himself a limited typist due to RSI, when I learned on an episode of Hypercritical that he dictates much of what goes into his legendary Mac OS X reviews for Ars Technica. I think that’s awesome, and I wish I could do that without stuttering.

Personal preferences

Interestingly, for as much trouble as I have typing correctly, I find that options such as Sticky Keys in OS X aren’t needed. I find that I’m pretty good at using keyboard shortcuts. In addition, as I’m left-handed, I have no trouble using my Magic Mouse to navigate around my screen, so Mouse Keys aren’t needed either.

On iOS, a feature such as AssistiveTouch is geared towards motor-impaired users who have trouble touching on-screen controls. I have no such problems, as my method of using my strong hand (left) to type and navigate works well for me. Furthermore, manipulating my iPhone and iPad’s physical buttons (e.g., Home, ring/silent) is also no trouble at all.

While I would love to be able to type in a technically correct manner and tap out an iMessage in thirty seconds, as many of my family and friends can, the realist in me knows that’s never going to happen. Nonetheless, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to persevere regardless of this obstacle; it shows a lot of determination and resiliency. More importantly, I think the fact that I keep writing in spite of the adversity goes to show how much I love the craft. My job requires me to do something for many hours a day, every day, that is physically strenuous, yet I continue to push onward.

Whatever works

I realize that trouble typing isn’t a problem limited to only those with disabilities—I know people who have arthritis and RSI that have just as much difficulty as I do. But my unique perspective forces me to look at a seemingly mundane task like typing in a new light. Suddenly, the mundanity is transformed into relative importance. In other words, typing on my MacBook and my iPhone isn’t something I take for granted.

I won’t say that I’m happy with hunting and pecking my way around a keyboard, but I am happy that I’m able to type at all, and that my accommodations work really well for me.

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