Alternative Keyboards and Mice Provide Connected Opportunities for People with MS By Ellen Kampel & John M. Williams
Shirley Thomson, 62, of New Plymouth, New Zealand was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994. When she was told she had MS, she didn’t panic. She reasoned that she was going to live the best life she could. Priorities such as maintaining a job, remaining independent, staying connected and living an active and high quality of life became personal goals. Over the years, her muscle coordination deteriorated and made it difficult for her to use a standard computer keyboard she started looking at alternatives.
Two years ago, her life changed. She said, “I was in the hospital for a few days in August 2005. I was restless to go home, and persuaded the doctors to discharge me. That night I saw the Lomak (light operated mouse and keyboard) on television, and I knew I had to try this amazing keyboard.”
She brought one, and today, she uses it from four-to-12 hours every day to write e-mails, letters and a biography of her father. Designed for people who have difficulty using a standard computer keyboard, Lomak is a hands-free keyboard and mouse that tracks a small light device mounted onto a headband worn by the user. Lomak moves the cursor by tracking head movements with a laser beam. The laser beam produces a keyboard or mouse action, and each keystroke is confirmed before being input. Lomak is also available in a hand-operated version.
”I just point the laser-beam light at my target in the center of the board and presto, I have computer access,” Thomson said.
Lomak is not the only input device on the market for people with MS.
There are a variety of assistive technologies available, including foot pedals, head-tracking pointers, joy sticks, tracking balls and other hands-free options. Alternative input devices are designed to utilize the strongest muscle groups to give people maximum control and minimize stress on weaker muscle groups.
Below are descriptions of input devices that can be used either alone or in combination to make the computer easier to use and in some circumstances, control other appliances.
-- Foot pedals allow hands-free activation commands that otherwise require a keyboard stroke or mouse click. Using their feet, users learn to use frequently assigned keys, key combinations, or macros.
-- Head-tracking pointers use a camera and allow users to control a mouse pointer with head and facial movements.
-- Joy-sticks control computer games and can control the cursor on other computer applications. Often a joystick has one or more push-buttons, called switches, whose position can also be read by the computer.
-- Track balls are another way to move the cursor and execute other mouse functions by moving or rotating the ball. A traditional mouse requires the user to grasp the mouse, move the mouse, and click a mouse button separately.
Nouse™ is another example of a hands-free input device. The National Research Council (NRC) and the Elizabeth Breyer Research Institute in Ottawa, ON, Canada developed a "nose as mouse" technology called the Nouse, which uses a Web camera and integrated software to translate the nose movements of computer users into computer cursor movements and clicks. As Nouse users turn their heads the pointer follows across the screen. Tilting the head works the same as clicking a mouse button.
Between 10-15 patients at St. Vincent Hospital in Ottawa are testing the "Nouse" as a new alternative to a regular computer mouse. One of the patients, Linda Baker, has primary progressive MS, and she was on the Internet regularly until she lost mobility in her arms. She hopes the Nouse, or some other hands-free device, will enable her to get back online and reconnect with others who have MS.
"I have a rare form of the disease and it's kind of nice to talk to someone else who has the same kind - just to see what they're doing, how they're making out," said Baker, who tries hard to be independent and uses her head to operate her wheelchair.
“The Nouse will open doors for many people,” said Hilary McKee, an occupational therapist, who works at the Elizabeth Breyer Research Institute said,
"Computers are so integrated into our lives these days that it's really important for people with disabilities to be able to access the computer and use it to its full advantage," McKee said.
Taking full advantage of the empowering effects of computers and their benefits to people with MS is also in line with Thomson’s thinking.
“Multiple Sclerosis has made it almost impossible to use a conventional keyboard,” Thomson said.
“My alternative keyboard has given me freedom, independence and a sense of completeness. I am once again typing long e-mails and letters as well as performing countless other computing tasks,” says Thomson.
Since fatigue is an important cause of early departure from the workforce, alternative input devices may help you stay employed longer. They can be used in occupational therapy to help simplify tasks at work and at home.
Experience dictates that you may need to experiment with many alternative input keyboards to discover the one that is right for you.
Ellen Kampel is the public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft. John M. Williams has been writing about disability issues since 1978 and coined the phrase "Assistive Technology”.