Are you sitting comfortably?

On every desk there will also be a range of different writing implements, which are selected for maximum productivity and effectiveness. The fountain pen you may use for signing documents is hardly suitable for highlighting a report, nor for making swift notes in a meeting. Why then is our basic work tool selected, in the majority of cases, with absolutely no regard to the user whatsoever?

Many employees are significantly less productive and even taking time off to recover from pain and discomfort because they are using the wrong equipment or ‘can’t use the keyboard and/or mouse’. Every year AbilityNet, the UK’s leading authority on computing and disability, sees hundreds of such people and it’s very often a simple, cost-effective (or even no cost) solution that provides the answer to their problems. The concept that computers could be, and indeed should be, adapted to the end user is a fairly new one for some employers, but it is an approach that can enhance performance and appreciably reduce sick leave.

At least 10% of any workforce will be left-handed. For left-handers, using a mouse with their right hand is not advisable. It will be less effective and will put unnecessary strain on a part of their anatomy ill-equipped to deal with it. Why not use the mouse with your left hand and reverse the button functions so you are actually on an equal footing with your right-handed colleagues?

If you are left-handed and predominantly a number pad user, why have a standard keyboard with a number pad on the right? Have a separate number pad on the left and a compact keyboard.

Right-handed people who have minimal use for their number pads (the majority of PC users in fact) are stretching unnecessarily to reach their mouse, thereby risking injury. Opting for an integrated keyboard (with built in number pad) means the mouse is in a much closer, and therefore safer, position on the desk.

For many end users the mouse is a problem in itself. It demands a complex and unnatural movement and overuse can lead to wrist and arm pain. Such individuals may see doctors, physiotherapists, occupational health consultants and other specialists about discomfort they experience on using this device.

No one seems to suggest the obvious – to drastically reduce its use.

There are keyboard alternatives to virtually all mouse functions.

A recent Health and Safety Executive report suggests upper limb disorder or ‘RSI’ is the most common cause of workplace health problems, totalling in excess of 4.2 million working days lost a year and affecting more than half a million employees. A later survey reveals one in five PC users report some degree of pain or discomfort attributable to a non-keyboard input device – that is, a mouse.

And this figure rises steeply depending on the level and intensity of PC-based work in which the individual engages. AbilityNet estimates that around 50% of PC users could benefit from adaptive technology of some sort; this implies that half of us are ‘non-standard’ in some way – not so surprising really.

While we may all have a PC at our disposal, many of us have never learnt to touch type, and even if we have, we can save ourselves an enormous amount of time and energy and improve our speed and accuracy with assisted input. Many people could save time spent keyboarding by using built-in techniques like abbreviation expansion or phrase prediction (autotext and autocorrect in Word). Or if you want to stop struggling altogether with the old Qwerty keyboard – get voice recognition technology. It is much cheaper and user-friendly than you might think.

For employers facing the perceived ‘challenge’ of adapting the workplace to meet the demands of the Disability Discrimination Act and making ‘reasonable adjustment’ for disabled employees – the good news is PCs can be modified by those with almost any disability, often without significant financial outlay.

Only 42% of the seven million disabled people of working age in the UK are in employment. Around one in five become disabled while in a job and losing their contribution deprives organisations of a considerable asset often representing a significant investment in terms of the skills base and experience they have accumulated over the years.

The Employers Forum on Disability reports that losing such an employee can cost around £160,000. Awareness that computer technology can be adapted to individual needs demands a change of culture that can benefit us all.

While most organisations see ‘disability’ and ‘access’ as issues affecting the minority of their workforce, the provisions required to adjust their systems to accommodate disabled employees, can help staff who would not consider themselves to have a ‘disability’.

However, today’s twinge or eyestrain could be tomorrow’s chronic condition.

Neglecting a minor irritation can convert into a significant problem later.

Liz Moor, of HSBC’s IT Training Group, has worked closely with AbilityNet to raise awareness of these issues within the company’s IT development department.

She says: ‘AbilityNet developed a course with HSBC specifically to address the needs of our IT function, from which more than 700 employees have benefited by applying this learning in their day-to-day work, and ensuring standards are adhered to. They now also feel confident about making decisions, many of which are more cost-effective.’

  • Carries Saint Freedman is publicity officer for AbilityNet
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