When the keyboard and mouse are not enough

The QWERTY keyboard, the laptop trackpad, and the standard, two-button mouse immediately come to mind when thinking of how one interacts with a computer. But if you have difficulty using these peripherals, or even if you just want to be more efficient, it’s helpful to think about the alternatives.

And there are alternatives. A plethora of them. It wouldn’t be possible to cover them all in one article—and maybe not even in a whole website. But I want to point your attention to a few as a way to get you to thinking about alternative input methods and how they might benefit you. It shouldn’t be difficult to use your computer. It’s a computer—it should be working for you.

Keyboard alternatives

For me, using a traditional hardware keyboard is impossible. I simply don’t have the strength to do it. Others might have trouble being precise enough to press the desired key. Whether it’s a physical impairment a mental health condition that makes using the keyboard difficult, there are alternatives that may help.

Large and compact keyboards

Before you go down the rabbit hole of using a lot of alternative methods, consider whether you may just need a smaller, or bigger, keyboard. You can purchase external keyboards of varying sizes from handheld to ones with jumbo print keys.

When I was in college, I carried around a laptop-sized external keyboard that I could plug in to public computers on campus.1

Ergonomic and one-handed keyboards

It’s also worth looking into ergonomic keyboards. Some are split in such a way that your hands can reach each side of the keyboard at a better angle. Many come with with wrist support and other padding which might be helpful for your typing posture.

There are also keyboards designed to be used with one hand only. These usually look like half of a keyboard—and only half of the keys you need are available to you at a time. The trick is that each key also represents another key, and holding down a special button will give you access to that key. So it’s a bit like switching between two modes while you are typing.

Onscreen keyboard

Most systems come with a built-in onscreen keyboard.2 This is a keyboard that displays on the screen that allows you to use the mouse to type. If you can’t use a hardware keyboard at all, an onscreen keyboard is a great alternative. Windows has had a built-in onscreen keyboard for years and recent versions of macOS have a utility called Accessibility Keyboard.

If you use an onscreen keyboard for any amount of time, you may notice that typing is slow and tedious. You can mitigate this problem by using alternative keyboard layouts. Although you may need third party software on Windows, customizing your onscreen keyboard is fairly easy to do in macOS via a built-in keyboard panel editor. I recommend the Chubon layout, which is optimized for single digit entry (like using a mouse). I wrote about how I customized my onscreen keyboard.

Braille and chorded keyboards

If you need braille, you might want keyboard overlays with braille on them. A more expensive solution is a chorded keyboard, which is specialized for typing braille. Non-braille users may also find that they can use chorded keyboards easier than traditional ones.

Speech recognition

This isn’t a hardware peripheral, but rather a software solution to the problem. The most popular speech recognition software is Dragon NaturallySpeaking by Nuance. It’s only available for Windows (although you can still get older versions of Dragon Dictate for Mac). On macOS, there’s a built in speech recognition feature which you can find in the accessibility system preferences under “Dictation.”

If you are a coder, there are some other options for you. I’m a big fan of Talon, free (as in free beer) software for Mac that makes precise dictation—the kind developers need—possible. It’s scriptable in Python so that with a little knowledge, you can configure a command set that compliments your workflow. And there’s a thriving little community to help you should you need it.

I won’t go into anymore detail here, but I will be covering Talon a lot in articles to come.

Mobile devices

When my strength was declining in the early twenty-tens and I couldn’t find a keyboard small enough to fit my needs I found utility in peculiar sub-genre of mobile apps—remotes. Remote apps enable you to provide keyboard and mouse input to your computer via your mobile device. HippoRemote (now defunct) and Rowmote Pro were go-to apps for me. I even used them to write my first novel manuscript.

While these apps are often intended for operating a computer during a presentation or a computer connected to a TV, they make great assistive tech tools.

Though this article is focused on computer input, it’s worth mentioning that there’s nothing wrong with using mobile devices for tasks one might normally use a computer for. I’ve heard of developers who manage to complete all their work on iPad so it’s definitely possible. Go with what works for you.

Mouse alternatives

When it comes to mouse input, you’ve got some options. Much like keyboards, mice come in many shapes, sizes, and variations. But first…

Relying on a keyboard-focused workflow

It doesn’t take long reading articles in programmer circles to realize that many of them despise being disrupted by needing to use a mouse. The details are outside the scope of this article but if you optimize your system for it, you can get a long way without needing to use the mouse at all. Classic terminal-based text editors like Vim let you navigate around your document and manipulate text with laser focus thanks to their keyboard-centric approach.

Many apps let you assign keyboard shortcuts for tasks that you once used the mouse for. And most OSes should let you assign global keyboard shortcuts for common tasks, although I’ll admit I’m really only familiar with macOS.

Using the keyboard as your mouse

In macOS—and I imagine in most systems—you can set up the keyboard to be used as arrow keys that can move your mouse cursor around. In the case of macOS, the number pad can be used. This isn’t ideal in situations where you need broad, fluid mouse movements, but if you just need a little bit of basic movement to get by, this could be perfect. It’s complimented well by the keyboard-focused workflow described previously.

Trackpads and trackballs

Anyone who has used a laptop is probably familiar with the trackpad. If you use a desktop but you prefer the mousing experience of a laptop, you can get an external trackpad. Apple even has an official one for use with desktop Macs. If you also like laptop-size keyboards, you can get an external keyboard with a trackpad built-in.

Then there are trackballs, which are sort of like the ball mice of yore flipped upside down. These can be helpful because they require a completely different type of gesture—instead of moving your hand around a surface area, you are rolling a ball around in a socket. You can also get trackballs in a variety of sizes, from marble-like to baseball-like.

Compact and ergonomic mice

As with keyboards, mice come in many shapes, sizes, and variations. I personally use a compact Bluetooth mouse from Logitech. You can get small mice, large mice, ergonomically shaped mice, and everything in between. If you are almost able to use a mouse but the standard size isn’t working for you, take a look at what’s out there and see if you can find a better fit.

Graphic/drawing tablets

Graphics tablets accept mouse input in the form of a stylus. Illustrators love these because they can draw similarly to the way they would draw using a regular pen or pencil. But these tablets can also serve as good assistive tech devices. For example, if you don’t have a lot of gross motor ability but have good fine motor ability, you may find the precision of a stylus useful and the types of movement required by them might be easier for you to accomplish.

Head and eye tracking

If you have ever played a Nintendo Wii, then you will grasp the concept of this type of mouse input. It consists of mounting a sensor near your screen which can track your head or eye movement (or both in some cases) and move the mouse cursor around accordingly.

Talon, the software I mentioned earlier, also supports eye tracking with the appropriate hardware. It may be the affordable option versus some of the other options available in this area.

Switches

Up until now, we’ve primarily talked about products that are for the general consumer. But there is a world of mouse and keyboard input devices that are designed for people with disabilities. And a lot of this world revolves around switches.

I was always confused by the term, switch, because it brought to mind a light switch, which typically rests in either and on or off position.

The type of switches I’m talking about though are more like buttons. You will need a switch interface—essentially an adapter that allows you to plug switches into your computer. Once you have that, you have the ability to plug a variety of different switches into it.

For example, I use a switch that is designed to be easy to press by people who are very weak—it has a very low activation force. But there are all kinds of switches. Some of them are large buttons made to be pressed with your feet. Some of them are made to be adhered to a surface for easy reach. Some of them respond to touch. Any kind of switch you can imagine—it’s probably out there.

I’ve purposely not linked to too many individual products as these things tend to change. But if you don’t know where to find switches, it can be difficult when you’re just starting out. I recommend you check out AbleNet. If you are considering switches, it might be a good idea to talk to an assistive technology specialist.

The basic idea here, though, is that you can configure the switches to either perform a mouse click or perform a keyboard press or kickoff a macro, or whatever else you need. Depending on your needs it may require you to buy some specialized software.

Pro tip: in the US, there are government programs that will fund this type of equipment for you if you have a disability and you require it.

Sip and puff, and other head-mounted input

This is very commonly used among people who are paralyzed from the neck down. It allows you to activate mouse clicks or keyboard presses via signals from a device that you gently sip or blow into. This type of equipment is usually very costly and it’s definitely recommended to go through a government agency or nonprofit organization that will pay for it if at all possible.

In addition to sip and puff, there are also other head-mounted controls such as joysticks, which are intended to be used with your mouth. These can be used to move a mouse cursor around or even enable gaming for someone who doesn’t have the use of their hands.

Conclusion

This hasn’t been an exhaustive article, but hopefully it’s got you thinking about all the alternative ways that you can provide keyboard and mouse input to your computer.

I believe figuring out the right setup is part science and part art. Assistive technology specialists can help you with many of these, but I also believe that it’s important to see for yourself what is out there and think about what might work for you.

At the end of the day, you are in the best position to decide what you need. I hope these alternatives help you or at least cause you to go looking for other alternatives that I failed to mention.

The bottom line is that just because you can’t use a keyboard or mouse easily doesn’t mean that you can’t use your computer easily or efficiently.


  1. That worked very well for me for years, although it’s not an option for me anymore because my condition has progressed. 
  2. On Windows, look for the Ease of Use folder in Programs. On Mac, go to System Preferences > Accessibility > Keyboard. If you are on Linux, you want to look for Onboard (and I believe Ubuntu comes installed with its own keyboard based on it).