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Accommodation and Compliance Series:
Alternative Input Devices


Individuals may have limitations that interfere with the ability to access computers. Traditionally, a computer user accesses a computer with a standard point and click mouse and an external QWERTY keyboard (named for the top left-hand side of the rows). Individuals with physical and/or developmental limitations may not be able to use these standard computer input devices effectively so may benefit from using alternatives. Standard keyboards are made for typists who use two hands and ten fingers; alternative input devices are made for computer users with a variety of limitations, including individuals with no hand or finger movement. Individuals with these limitations may benefit from alternative input devices if they have tremors or spasticity, lack of coordination, loss of vision, paralysis or numbness, and/or a decline in cognitive function.

Alternative input devices are hardware or software solutions that allow users with a variety of impairments to access a computer in a different way. These devices come in many shapes and sizes to accommodate a variety of limitations. Generally we access a computer using a standard keyboard and mouse. Alternative input devices allow the user to access a computer in whatever way works best for them such as using his/her feet, head, eye, mouth, breath, thumb, or a single finger. Some devices are activated by motion while others can be controlled with nerve or muscle signals, optical tracking, even brain activity and mind energy.

In recent years, with the advent of tablet devices and touch screen PCs, we have seen a shift in how products are being developed and how “traditional” input devices are often not part of the package. However, many of the features discussed in this publication are available on tablet devices right out of the box; they just have to be turned on. Text-to-speech is just one example of a built-in accessibility feature that some tablet devices offer. Accessories are available that offer key guards for the onscreen keyboard, external large print or color contrast keyboards are available, and devices can be configured to be switch accessible.

This publication is a non-inclusive list of alternative computer input devices typically used by individuals with upper and lower extremity limitations. If you would like additional information contact the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) directly. JAN also has information on alternative input devices designed specifically to accommodate individuals with cognitive and sensory impairments.

Software and Onboard Features

Software programs that assist people who use alternative input devices are available. Some software actually comes imbedded in computer operating systems. Most new versions of operating systems have accessibility options that make the keyboard easier to use. Keyboard shortcuts or Sticky Keys let the user press a shortcut, such as Shift, Ctrl, or Alt and have it remain active until another key is pressed. Filter Keys, such as Bounce Keys, can be set so that brief or repeated keystrokes are ignored. Mouse Keys allow the user to move the mouse around the screen by using the numeric keypad. For additional information on your operating system's features, visit the operating system's homepage or access the system's help feature.

On-screen keyboards, sometimes called keyboard emulators, are software programs that display virtual keyboards on computer screens. A user can then "type" data using an alternative input device, such as a mouse. Newer versions of computers come with on-screen keyboard options, which have basic capabilities.

With Word prediction software the user can start typing a word, the application will interpret what is being typed, and a list of suggested words will be provided. This software also displays a menu of words that typically follow the word just typed. Word completion software displays sample words after typing part of a word. Macro software allows users to complete several steps of a task in a few programmed keystrokes. Often these software programs are packaged together.

Morse code software is based on a modified military Morse code, which involves a system where dots and dashes are combined to form codes representing all the characters on the keyboard. Morse code software is offered as freeware or bundled with input devices such as switches. For additional information use a search engine such as Yahoo! to locate Morse code freeware.

Many products have built-in word prediction features, onscreen keyboards, and speech recognition. Tablets and smart technology also uses onscreen keyboards and there are various options for keyboard lay out with these products. When using a tablet, a user can “split” the keyboard so that the keys are split on either side of the screen. This might be easier or more comfortable for some people to use.

Touch screens can be built into computers or they can be devices that are placed on the computer monitor that allows the user to control the computer with direct pen-on-screen input. If an individual cannot use a keyboard and/or mouse but is able to use a stylus, a mouthstick, or their finger to input information, converting a monitor might be an option to consider.

Use of Hands and Feet

Among the alternative computer input devices that can be operated by hands and fingers are alternative/ergonomic, miniature, expanded, and one-handed keyboards; switches; handwritten entry, touch screens, and pen systems; scanners; and alternative mice (touchpads, joysticks, and trackballs). For information on these products visit JAN's Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR).

Alternative keyboards, sometimes called ergonomic keyboards, can be used by individuals with various impairments but are especially beneficial to individuals who experience pain and fatigue when keyboarding. Alternative keyboards come in many sizes and shapes: fixed split keyboards, adjustable split, or contoured. Many increase typing comfort, such as light touch, touch-free, or virtual keyboards. Several can be positioned to accommodate individual preferences, including negative and positive tilt adjustments.

Alternative mice are variations of "traditional" click and point mice. An alternative mouse is usually designed to help accommodate individuals with various fine motor limitations, spasticity, or other gripping limitations. For example, an individual who cannot grip a traditional mouse due to arthritis, carpal tunnel, or a hand injury may be able to move a cursor effectively with a glidepoint, trackball, or joystick.

Expanded keyboards are typically flat, smooth, and have larger keys (i.e., one-inch square); most have a clear Mylar cover and many are waterproof.

Pen tablet systems, handwritten entry, and touch screens allow users to control computers with direct pen-on-screen input and fingertip-on-screen control.

Miniature keyboards vary in size and are smaller than "traditional" QWERTY keyboards. Keys are closely spaced for easy access, and the keyboard surface is very sensitive to touch.

One-handed keyboards and software assist individuals with no or limited use of one hand in entering data into a computer by allowing more convenient "one-handed" entry and control.

Scanners, sometimes called optical character recognition (OCR) technology, allow individuals to scan printed text and save it to a computer.

Switches connect to an external device, such as a computer or tablet, and when activated the user is able to access the device with a click of the switch. Switches can be activated by any part of the body and most are activated by pressure. Some switches require little to no pressure to be activated and some can be activated by gesturing. Switches come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, can be mounted anywhere, and can be interfaced so that an individual can have access to multiple devices.

Ten keypads are separated from a keyboard and give the numeric layout of a standard desktop keyboard or ten key. These movable keypads are small and can be used left or right handed on your desktop or laptop computer.

Use of Speech

Speech recognition allows individuals to access the computer by using their voice. It can be very useful for those with physical impairments who have difficulty using a keyboard or for those with cognitive or intellectual impairments who have difficulty with writing and documentation. The speech recognition software is "trained" to recognize a user's commands, i.e., "open," "enter," and "close." The technology has several components: noise-canceling input, a speech recognition engine, vocabularies, application interfaces, text-to-speech for proofreading, and prompts for format corrections. Many newer computers have basic speech recognition built into the operating system. The software available ranges from basic dictation to occupation specific products. Visit "Speech Recognition: Options to Consider" for additional information on speech recognition software.

Use of Head

A head tracking device is a type of alternative input device that allows an individual to control the computer by moving their head. A camera that is mounted on the computer tracks a small dot that can be placed anywhere on the users head-even on glasses or a hat. Keys or commands are engaged when the individual dwells over a spot on the screen for a certain length of time. For information on alternative input devices that are controlled by the head, visit JAN's SOAR for Head Controlled Alternative Computer Input Devices.

Use of Breath and Mouth

Alternative input devices can be controlled by the user’s breath and mouth. The user controls the mouthpiece or mouse stick with the movement of their lips and engages the mouse clicks by sipping and puffing through the mouthpiece, similar to what someone would do when using a straw.For information on alternative input devices that are controlled using breath and mouth, visit JAN's SOAR for Breath and Mouth Controlled Alternative Computer Input Devices.

Use of Eyes

Eyegaze technology enables an individual to access a device by using only eyes. Video cameras are used to detect and observe eye movement. Some systems do not even require the user to wear anything on their head. The individual can navigate a computer screen or operate some other device by looking at keys on a control screen. The keys are activated when the user has looked at the key for a specified amount of time. For information on alternative input devices that are controlled using the eyes, visit JAN's SOAR for Eye Controlled Alternative Computer Input Devices.

Use of Feet

For information on alternative input devices that are controlled using the feet, visit JAN's SOAR for Feet Controlled Alternative Computer Input Devices.

Environmental Control Units

Environmental control units (ECUs), which enable users to turn off and on lights and appliances, adjust thermostats, control switch operated battery-powered devices, and control computer equipment, are also available. Environmental control accessories such as audio visual equipment controls, bed controls, and signal controls are available. Many are operated by remote controls or are controlled by the user's voice, by touch buttons, and by timers.

Updated 06/17/13


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