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How do you use a computer when you’re unable to use a standard mouse or keyboard? Using specially-adapted software, of course!
Two main types of software facilitate this: onscreen keyboards and dwell click software. While they will be examined as separate entities here, there is in fact a large degree of overlap between the two and very often an onscreen keyboard will provide dwell click functions, and vice versa.
But these aren’t the only way for disabled users or those suffering from injury to interact with their computers — you might be surprised just how accessible modern computing solutions can be.
Essentially a visual representation of a physical keyboard, these are often referred to as OSK’s. An OSK allows you to type by moving the cursor to the desired character, and then with a click (which I will look at options for achieving) the chosen character is produced. There can be a huge variation in the features different packages offer as well as how they are accessed.
The use of an OSK assumes you already have a suitable pointing device set up, such as one I outlined in a past article about head-mounted tracking and other alternatives to the mouse.
Built-in Onscreen Keyboards
Fortunately a basic OSK is available in the system software of both Mac and Windows platforms.
On a Mac you can do this under System Preferences > Keyboard > Show Keyboard Character View as a Menu Bar. Now you can visit the upper-right hand corner and select Show Keyboard Viewer to use the on-screen keyboard, which you can drag to resize.
On Windows this is enabled from Control Panel > Ease of Access Centre > Start On-Screen Keyboard.
Need More Features?
The built-in OSK’s that the system software provides are excellent offerings both as accessibility features and useful utilities. If however, an onscreen keyboard will be be your primary text input method, you may find a fuller-featured solution is what you need.
There is (especially for Windows) a very healthy selection of applications packed with a dizzying array of options. Here are two applications (one from each platform) that l myself own and use daily.
Keystrokes ($299, Mac OS X)
An extremely comprehensive and feature-laden piece of software, Keystrokes offers far more than just the ability to enter text. It also incorporates a sophisticated dwell click system which is seamlessly integrated into the keyboard layout. Another notable part of the package is the LayoutKitchen which allows you to create and customize your own keyboard, which is widely used by disabled gamers to have game specific keyboard setups.
- Fully functional on-screen keyboard that floats above other applications.
- Works seamlessly with all standard Mac OS X applications.
- Intelligent, learning word prediction.
- Dwellix, the dwelling solution to click and type without pushing the mouse button.
- SmartTransparency automatically shows and hides the keyboard as needed.
- Multiple Layouts.
- Macro keys.
- Audio and visual feedback.
Hot Virtual Keyboard ($29.99, Windows)
In many ways, Hot Virtual Keyboard could be considered a Windows equivalent of KeyStrokes for Mac. Another hugely rich application packed with an extensive toolkit of attributes.
- Fully functional on-screen keyboard floating above other applications.
- Supports Windows 2000 all the way through to Windows 10.
- Perceptive auto complete.
- Comes with over 70 different keyboards.
- Editing feature to create your own keyboard.
- Multiple Layouts.
- Program hot keys to perform tasks with one key-press.
- Change key color, font and sound.
Other notable retail OSK’s worth checking out:
VirtualKeyboard ($19.95 – 14 Day trial, Mac OS X)
- Similar to word prediction, a “Labels” function allows you to quickly insert often used text (greeting, signature etc)
- Intelligent auto-minimize shrinks keyboard after a specified period of inactivity.
Touch-It Virtual Keyboard ($19.95, Windows)
- Logon screen keyboard.
- Keyboard auto-appears when it detects text input is required.
- Detects fields obscured by keyboard and automatically positions them into a viewable position.
- Comprehensive keyboard designer.
There are also a few free on-screen keyboards, though expect them to be even more barebones than those that came with your OS:
Keyup (Mac OS X)
Free Virtual Keyboard (Windows)
As the examples above show, the options regarding onscreen keyboards are prodigious, whether it be in features, suitability, platform or price.
Dwell Click Software
What is dwell-clicking you ask? It is a solution that enables you to achieve normal mouse clicks without the need for a physical mouse by holding the cursor steady in an area for a configurable amount of time.
DwellClick ($9.99, Mac OS X)
An excellent example of dwell-clicking software, complete with an elegant design and a comprehensive set of attributes. Possibly the perfect companion for those with wrist pain or users employing an alternative pointing device.
- Full range of mouse-click actions, left, right and double click
- Intelligent auto-drag, grab and move windows or resize
- Show-hide control panel to choose click type or select modifier keys
- Range of audio and visual feedback options
- Key-activated panel for on the spot click choices (for those unable to press a key, try voice control)
Point-N-Click (Free, Windows)
A very respectable freeware offering which provides a large number of configurations to suit the needs of the user
- Simple, clear interface.
- Resize-able window.
- Change transparency.
- Adjustable to different sensitivity settings.
Keyboard & Dwell Click Combinations
As mentioned earlier, Despite having looked at onscreen keyboards and dwell click software as separate entities, there are many instances where the features of both are combined in a single package.
A perfect example again is KeyStrokes (above). Aside from the excellent OSK component, it has a comprehensive dwell click feature as you can see in the image below:
See the icons in the box at the top-right? Simply by focusing the cursor on the dwell click circle at the left, dwell clicking will be activated by then moving the cursor to the desired type of mouse action. Wherever the cursor is moved to next will perform the selected type of mouse click.
The dwell click mechanic illustrated here of providing a set of buttons for performing various types of mouse clicks is very much the same for other OSK/dwell-click combinations.
Dwell-click solutions are also often available as part of Alternative Input Device packages. The Smartnav tracking camera, for example, includes excellent dwell-click software with the package
Mouse Click Using Assistive Devices
Another invaluable way to achieve a mouse click, is through the use of some form of assistive device, usually a hardware switch of which there are many varied forms and types. From simple single switches which require a tap or push, especially mounted proximity switches, puff tubes, facial muscle movement sensors et cetera.
Essentially, whatever the type of switch it will connect to the computer usually through the USB port in just the same way as a normal mouse.
Voice Recognition Software
Ten years ago using voice to type (dictate) was notoriously inaccurate, but today the available software packages can pretty much achieve the dictation holy grail of near-100 percent accuracy. Just as impressive as precise dictation is the ability to fully control your computer completely by voice. In fact, what is now available on our computers is nothing less than science-fiction becoming fact…
Built-in Voice Recognition
As with a basic OSK, Voice Recognition is available in the system software of both Mac and Windows platforms.
On a Mac you can do this under System Preferences > Dictation & Speech > Dictation. You can also enable Enhanced Dictation which facilitates offline use, but requires a small download.
- Click in the text field or document where you want to type.
- Choose Edit > Start Dictation (or press the “fn” function key twice).
- Speak (dictate) what you wish to type.
- When finished, click Done (or press the “fn” function key).
In Windows, start speech recognition by going to Start > All Programs > Accessories > Ease Of Access > Windows Speech Recognition. To dictate:
1. Say “start listening” or click the on-screen microphone.
2. Select where you want to enter text (text box, document, search forms and so on).
3. Speak, then click the on-screen microphone when done.
Advanced Voice Recognition
These built in offerings (apart from being free) are without a doubt useful and, with practice, could be perfect for your needs. If however you require more advanced features such as transcription and mobility, the leader in purpose-built voice recognition software would be Nuance which caters for both Mac & Windows
Dragon For Mac ($200, Mac OS X)
The latest edition of the Nuance range of dictation software for Macintosh, Dragon provides incredibly accurate dictation results with an exhaustive library of Mac control commands to boot. With my primary working platform being Mac OS X, I have been using successive versions of Dragon for some time. This version has built on the strengths of the previous releases but retained a familiar interface making it instantly accessible.
- Swift, precise dictation, with full correction and editing capability.
- Comprehensive and intuitive computer command controls.
- The ability to create customised controls and macro commands.
- Competent transcription facility.
- Works with iOS devices (as microphones), maintaining synchronisation with desktop machines.
- Requires no additional hardware (provided you have an inbuilt microphone on your Mac).
Dragon Naturally Speaking Home ($74.99, Windows)
It is important to point out, that the Dragon Naturally Speaking range for Windows is extremely large and offers different products depending on the needs of the user. There are expensive options which offer a great deal more, however I have featured the option above as it is the only one that I have had personal experience using. If you want more precise control over your Windows PC, you may need to opt for a more expensive package.
- Excellent dictation support.
- Web surfing & search using voice.
Ultimately, the choice of dictation software depends on the needs and desires of the user. It is important to note that dictation and voice recognition in general require a degree of patience and taking time to learn how to use both the software and your voice. Taking the time do this can provide fantastic results.
How I Use These Tools
I have tried to provide an overview of alternative methods to type and click without the use of a normal mouse or keyboard, but there are very large number of ways to achieve this. Although options for individual functions exist, much of the methods outlined above work most effectively when one solution is used in conjunction with another.
As an example of this concept, I am a disabled computer user myself (having no movement below the shoulders) who uses an alternative input device for mouse movement combined with an on-screen keyboard for typing and mouse-click.
For intensive document creation (like the article you are reading), I use voice recognition software (Dragon for Mac). The plentiful alternatives to a mouse and keyboard that are available enable me to choose whatever combination suits the computer activity I am engaged in. So when working on an article or correspondence I may use one set of tools, and when gaming I will use a different set.
Whether from a particular physical limitation, a need to alleviate discomfort from overuse of conventional mouse or keyboard, or an interest in experimentation with different ways to compute (seriously, who wouldn’t want to control their computer simply by speaking to it) the possibilities are very real indeed.
So, are these tools that would help your computing experience? Do you use these already?
Image Credit: 38906998 via Shutterstock