The Cost of Converting to the Dvorak Keyboard Layout

I use the Dvorak keyboard layout. It’s an alternative arrangement of the keys on the keyboard for better ergonomics. Most, if not all, computers can accomodate this layout through software drivers. There is quite a following of advocacy for the Dvorak layout, as well as detractors and debunkers.

I don’t claim that the QWERTY layout is bad. It was designed in the 1800’s, and was only one of several layouts used in mechanical typewriters, optimized for the smooth operation of those machines. Later, it won the popularity contest and became the only game in town. I used to type up to 100 wpm in QWERTY, usually in the 80’s when I bothered to check. It got me a job while at seminary, and helped with many other things. I learned to touch type QWERTY by forcing myself to do it right, beginning on an old 286 machine. Most of my practice was typing the papers of fellow students for money. (They had already been written. But once I got to choose the title myself. “Henry VIII: Can’t Get No Satisfaction, or Satisfaction Guaranteed?” Seriously.)

I made the switch to Dvorak well after I made the switch to Linux. I haven’t regretted either one, though there is a price for each. The price for Linux is not in dollars, but in willingness to learn. Learning fits my personality, so Linux and I have been inseparable. Dvorak also requires a willingness to learn. In this case, it’s willingness to re-learn, essentially retraining one’s reflexes so that when I think “toad” the proper fingers jump into action. Why did I switch? Not to type faster. Who really wants to type faster than 80 wpm, unless you’re taking dictation in the form of a speech or transcribing something? No, I did it for the ergonomics. I found that my carpal tunnels and my finger joints were aching, and not typing was not an option. So I figured out how to configure my OS (and later Windoze and MacOS), and away I went. Initially, the learning was somewhat hampered by the fact that my cheap keyboard still showed the QWERTY graphics. The easiest reference I had was an on-screen diagram. If you try learning Dvorak, I’d recommend buying an IBM model M keyboard and rearranging your keycaps. It’s the best keyboard ever made, anyway. The one I’m typing on now was made in 1984, and still works like new. That’s right: 1984.

It probably took me about 2-3 months before I was fully comfortable with my Dvorak performance. The adjustment was completely self-paced, with very few exercises. I found a typing tutor program that included Dvorak, and used it for maybe 30-45 minutes per week, tops. It was exciting to see my speed and accuracy increase. Soon I couldn’t sit down and touch type on a QWERTY keyboard any more. Exciting, but that brings me to my main point: the cost of switching. (I’d gladly pay it again.)

So now I can’t touch type on QWERTY keyboards, so when I use a strange computer, I’m either back to hunt and peck, or I reconfigure the keyboard temporarily. The latter is usually possible, and works well. Then, I have to remember to reset the keyboard when I’m done. Otherwise, someone else becomes frustrated. When I bought a keyboard for my Sony Clie, it only came with QWERTY drivers. So I had to open the driver program in my hex editor and rearrange the key codes until it was right. That actually worked rather well! But it illustrates the problem: I now type Dvorak in a QWERTY world. It must be like being left-handed. There are no Dvorak keyboards for sale. It’s just not an economic possibility. This isn’t because Dvorak is inferior, but because QWERTY simply dominates everything. (The fastest typer in the world uses Dvorak!) It takes real training to touch type, and training is expensive. Consider that the Air Force values its pilots higher than their million-dollar airplanes. It’s not just because the Air Force is old-fashioned, and believes in the intrinsic value of human life. No, Mabel, it’s the training. No wonder companies won’t buy Dvorak keyboards.

The cost of living in a QWERTY world is mostly a nuisance. The real problem arises when I have to use my computer’s CMOS or another hardware program that lives below my operating system. At that point, I need a QWERTY reference keyboard, because my fingers just don’t remember where those letters used to be! That’s also why it would be wonderful to find an affordable, high-quality Dvorak keyboard supported in the hardware itself instead of the OS driver. I understand that Apple actually made something like that once. Would that it could happen again!

Why am I willing to pay this cost? Because for me the ergonomics actually are better. I had been having some carpal tunnel and joint pain, but with the Dvorak layout, the stresses are all different. In fact, they’re better overall than with QWERTY.

Should you make the switch? Only if you’re willing to pay the cost. It’s not terrible, but it does take some perseverance. Is that still in the American vocabulary? Maybe. I won’t say that you’ll type any faster than before, though you might. However, I will say that you will find typing easier than before.

One thought on “The Cost of Converting to the Dvorak Keyboard Layout

  1. Jesse,

    Thanks for this post. I hadn’t considered DVORAK very seriously because of the universality issue, but the company I work for has been providing my laptop for sometime, so I don’t switch very often or loan my machine to other people. I could possibly get away with going DVORAK.

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