Advice: Using a Computer When You Have a Temporary Hand Injury

I’ve used speech input for a long time, and so when someone in my orbit gets a hand injury, I tend to get questions about speech input. Here’s my advice.

If your injury is temporary and to your nondominant hand, start with a Wacom Art pad tablet. It’s made for drawing on the computer, but it does a couple of other things that are useful for one-handed input. It’s a more efficient mouse than a mouse, because it’s absolute rather than relative – put the pen on the tablet and the mouse maps right to that place on the screen. So there’s no need to find the mouse cursor and drag it anywhere. This means less work and speedier mousing. It’s also easier on your hand to hold a pen in a neutral up-and-down position rather than keep your wrist turned all day to control a mouse. The tablet also lets you do a two-finger scroll anywhere on its surface.

If you want to try speech input and don’t mind learning something new, a temporary injury is a good time to try it, because you might be more patient learning it. There are two types of speech input. Putting words on the screen, or simple dictation, works very well. Controlling the computer with speech input is trickier.

If all you want to do with speech is put words on the screen and correct them, and you have a Mac, you’re in luck. The built-in speech recognition on a Mac works well for this, and there’s also a practical correction command that works well. You can turn on the Mac’s native speech recognition in System Preferences/Dictation & Speech. Under “Dictation” click the “On” radio button and check “Use Enhanced Dictation”.

To make this work well you’ll also need a noise-canceling microphone and soundcard pod. sells microphones and USB soundcard pods and they run the equipment through speech recognition tests. They’re a good place to find out about what works well for speech recognition.

Once you get your Mac up and running with speech you’ll have to get used to writing out loud. Be patient – it’s something that gets easier with practice.

The Mac has a good, simple correction command: “Replace with . For instance, if you dictate “The small dog sat down.” and then want to change “small dog” to “large giraffe”, you’d say ”Replace small dog with large giraffe”, and it would make the change: “The large giraffe sat down”.

Windows also has built-in speech recognition, but it’s not very good. The best way to try out or temporarily use simple dictation on a PC is to go to Google Docs and click Tools/Voice Typing. The same advice on noise-canceling microphones applies.

If you want to go further than just getting words on the screen, and control your computer by speech, the only game in town at the moment is Dragon speech recognition. The PC version of Dragon is also more powerful than the Mac version of Dragon. The two versions are quite different, both in how things work and in how commands are worded. Although they use the same speech engine, the interfaces were originally built by different companies. If you’re using a PC, consider getting the Pro Individual version, which gives you better macro tools and a wider range of third-party add-on options.

There’s a lot more to using speech input, especially if you want to do more than put words on the screen and occasionally change your mind about some of them. But this is my best advice for where to start if you have a temporary hand injury – try dictating text and see if talking to a computer works for you.