The second worst nightmare of anyone who uses a computer to make a living is getting a repetitive stress injury. It inevitably leads to the worst nightmare of anyone who uses a computer to make a living: losing the ability to type entirely. The resourceful person then goes shopping for things like one-handed keyboards and promptly discovers what most disabled people already know: adaptive technology is expensive.
Instead of writing the articles I’d planned to write, I spent most of the night and this morning doing just that, thanks to this annoying tingling and numbness in my left hand. It had to happen sooner or later, I suppose.
Indeed, the first one-handed keyboard I looked at carried a $129 price tag. For adaptive technology, this is, as I was about to learn, a bargain.
The next one I looked at, a so-called half-QWERTY keyboard, was a whopping $599. I was later able to find an identical keyboard for $99, so why the high price tag? As it turns out, this particular vendor encouraged people to ask someone else, such as an insurance company or government agency, to pay for the keyboard.
The first thing people think when seeing a situation like this is that the company is blatantly ripping off disabled people and should be penalized in some way. But there’s more to how a $99 keyboard became $599 than that.
Disabled people I know tell me that less mainstream assistive technology, such as portable Braille readers, speech synthesizers and the like, are prohibitively expensive for most people, thus the encouragement to apply for government assistance in obtaining one. A $1000 Braille reader is considered low cost, and they can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. While many disabled people easily qualify for such assistance, either through their insurance policy or through various government programs, many others do not.
How did a $99 keyboard based on $9 technology become $599?
The keyboard in question is very simple. The space bar acts as a shift key; when held down, it reverses in mirror image all of the keys on the keyboard, allowing for one-handed typing by those who were formerly two-handed touch typists. But the keyboard acts normally for a two-handed typist. This involves only a minor change in the keyboard’s internal logic controller, so I couldn’t understand why it was $99, and $599 was utterly ridiculous.
I figured there had to be a government program involved somehow, and sure enough, there is. It’s called Section 508. This law, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, generally requires that the federal government purchase computer technology that is accessible to people with disabilities.
And sure enough, the U.S. government has at least one contract to buy those accessible keyboards — at $599 each. And only then did I discover that the $599 keyboard and the $99 keyboard were exactly the same keyboard from exactly the same manufacturer. Once again we have unintended consequences of a well-meaning government social program which winds up screwing the people it was ostensibly meant to help.
I didn’t start the day looking for government waste, I swear. I was just looking for a way to type one-handed without spending too much money or wasting a lot of time. And as it turns out, I probably won’t have to spend any money at all to solve this problem.
Someone actually wrote a Linux device driver which makes the existing keyboard work exactly like this half-QWERTY keyboard. But it requires an accessibility subsystem which, unfortunately, hasn’t yet been included in the Linux kernel. It’s part of a larger speech system intended to make Linux more accessible to the blind.
So as I write this, I’m waiting for my computer to recompile the kernel. And I’m saving my $99 for the doctor.