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Redesigning the keyboard for universal design

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Photos of Keyboard key with one key featuring a wheelchair icon
We’re doing a lot of work at our studio these days making other people’s InDesign files into PDFs that are accessible to people with disabilities. A file came in this morning in which the designer had wrongly used hard hyphens to force the rag he desired. Of course he should have used discretionary hyphens instead. Using discretionary hyphens may have just been a matter of good form up until now, but for universal design it can affect whether the content is perceived correctly. Using hard hyphens when not appropriate is a fail for a screen reader because it changes how the word is read out loud.

It’s both the old-school typographer and the accessibility consultant in me who’s frustrated by the lack of awareness over the use of proper hyphens, non-breaking spaces, and the like. When I’m teaching how to build accessible documents (shameless plug: join us at Carleton University in Ottawa, Feb. 22 or Hamilton, Feb 28. to learn this stuff) to designers or non-designers, it’s easy to open their eyes to these issues — but then they’re frustrated as to where to find such constructs on their computer keyboards.

Seems like it’s time to redesign the English keyboard. I’m not talking about replacing QWERTY: that’s another issue. I’m talking about having dedicated keys for these key parts of our editorial alphabet (including proper quotation marks!). The timing is perfect for an upgrade because the nature of the keyboard itself is mutating as the majority of mobile devices are moving their keyboards on-screen, while technologies like Swype anticipate our keystrokes. It’s the perfect time to regain these typographic keys that used to be found on every dedicated typesetting machine, from Monotype to the Editwriter 7500, before they were lost in the shift to desktop publishing.

One way to help accelerate the cultural shift towards universal design that is taking place this decade is to teach people to stop using Microsoft Word as if it’s a typewriter. Another is that if we are to succeed in bringing up the next generation in a world that habituates building properly structured documents (using styles, headings, proper typography, templates…) from the get-go, then we’d benefit from keyboard layouts that make it easier to do so.

Perhaps dedicated keys would even be the precursor to the evolution of the alphabet: a word-breaking hyphen deserves to have a different symbol than the hyphen we use in the midst of a compound word. And the thin space that used to differ in width from a word space, and that also ensured that “Dr.” and “Seuss” always remained on the same row of type, deserves to make a comeback as HTML increasingly finds its elegance.

So here’s to kick-starting a move back to these essential typographic details, for the good of aesthetics, of understanding, and of universal design. Here’s to the return of the discretionary hyphen key, and the thin space, and dedicated open and closing quotation marks.

What other characters do you think are most missing from the English keyboard? And which could we do without?

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Reviewed February 12, 2013

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