An Occupational Therapist Begins to Learn Stenography with Plover

The steno keyboard layout, overlaid on a traditional QWERTY keyboard.

Introduction

I went down a deep rabbit hole and am participating in a new occupation. This time it involves virtually no investment but a lot of time, dedication, and practice, but the benefits are potentially well worth the effort. I am talking about stenography and Plover for a replacement to QWERTY keyboard typing.

I am in the process of publishing a post about Britney Spears and my thoughts on her situation from an occupational therapy perspective. During my research, I had to separate rumors from opinions from facts. Not much has been known about the details of the conservatorship of Britney Spears leading up to the court testimony on June 23, 2021 that was published online. This was my first time reading a court hearing which was transcribed by a court reporter (also known as a stenographer). I wondered to myself, how do these people type so fast?

Just how fast can court reporters and live closed-captioning transcribers type?

“In order to pass the United States Registered Professional Reporter test, a trained court reporter or closed captioner must write speeds of approximately 180, 200, and 225 words per minute (wpm) at very high accuracy in the categories of literary, jury charge, and testimony, respectively. Some stenographers can reach 300 words per minute.” [1]“Closed Captioning Web”. Captions.org. 2006-02-13. Archived from the original on March 10, 2006. Retrieved 2013-01-14.

An example of a stenotype. Source: stenoworks.com

I don’t know about you, but that is F-A-S-T! According to typingpal.com, the average typing speed is 40wpm. I just clocked under 100wpm at 99wpm on TypeRacer on a MacBook Air. While most would consider that moderately fast, there are many keyboard enthusiasts that type way faster on QWERTY on hardware such as mechanical keyboards. I also have a mechanical keyboard that I rarely use because I primarily work on my laptop for its portability. While I imagine that I should theoretically type faster than on the MacBook Air’s keyboard, it is not likely to be close to that 180wpm of the professionals. But I wanted to know what gave stenographers the advantage. Turns out, they use an entirely different keyboard layout, like how the DVORAK keyboard layout is different than QWERTY.

The steno keyboard layout (in Blue), overlaid on a traditional QWERTY keyboard (Black).

One theory for the QWERTY keyboard layout was due to a need for a system to prevent the mechanical lock-up of the strikers due to the close succession of adjacent often used keys that were high on the Bigram Frequency of usage?[2]https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2019/01/10/why-was-the-qwerty-keyboard-layout-invented/?sh=5fc3bd3657ae In other words, the QWERTY layout was used to avoid hardware issues and the keys physically getting stuck. If this theory is true, this means that QWERTY was not really designed to type fast, as commonly used letters in the English language are actually off the home row and require your fingers to travel (thus slowing down potential typing speed compared to it belonging on the home row).

How Steno keyboarding works and why it is awesome

  • It uses a phonetic system for typing out words, instead of typing them out literally every letter by hand.
  • Example: to type cat, you would enter K-A-T on a steno keyboard (instead of needing a key for the “C” in cat). This saves the number of keys needed, and therefore, the need for your fingers to potentially need to cover more keyboard real estate.
  • In other words, the fingers also do not need to expend as much physical effort due to moving around and can pretty much stay in place in their original position. Even playing the piano involves more movement as you move up and down the scales (I don’t know how to play the piano, but that’s what it looks like you need to do).
  • Instead of all 26 letters as keys, there are only 22 on a stenograph.
  • Multiple keys can be pressed simultaneously (like chords on a piano) to type out words even faster, 2 for most fingers, and 4 for right the pinky (at least that’s how I understand it).
  • When you make a mistake, e.g., such as wanting to delete an entire word because you change your mind and want to use another one instead (not necessarily a typo), you have to hold down backspace on a QWERTY. With a stenotype, you just press the asterisk, *, with either hand and it deletes the previous word. So it is much faster overall if you make mistakes too.
  • There is no need for a spacebar. If you have used SWIPE gesture typing, it is kind of like that, or autocomplete on mobile devices. When a word is typed, it automatically inserts a space in anticipation of the next word. A similar thing happens with steno when you type a word. So this eliminates the time and effort used when entering spaces with the spacebar.
  • You can use a predefined or create your own custom dictionary of shortcuts to type even faster for commonly used words, e.g, O-T-P-F > Occupational Therapy Practice Framework.

Plover – open-sourced Steno for the masses

Traditionally, steno required enrollment in expensive programs and purchasing expensive hardware (similar to the TI calculator thing when you were in statistics), but the hardware can be as much as $4000! So a professional stenographer who works to provide content for the deaf and hard of hearing decided to advocate and to promote to the art of stenography by creating a free open-source software called Plover. Plover allow anyone to download a free software and turn a normal QWERTY keyboard into a steno one. More serious hobbyists can purchase or even DIY their own steno keyboards.

My Barriers to Typing

As a content creator, I have been frustrated by how my typing lags behind my thoughts. Some professionals claim that with steno, they find themselves with the opposite problem – their thoughts lag behind their typing. That is an interesting experience that I would like to see for myself, but it is likely to take months (some say at least 6 months) to reach your typing speed on a QWERTY keyboard.

Ergonomic Benefits

And it is not all about typing speed. As your digits travel less and it takes overall less keystrokes to type the same phrase or sentence, your hands and wrists fatigue less. Plover creator and professional stenographer, Mirabai Knight, reports virtually no pain when typing on a steno. Although I don’t have any issues such as pain with typing, it does get tiring. I am also worried that I may develop issues in the future due to my increase in typing demands.

Accessibility

A real-world use of steno is live captioning such as for television for the deaf and hard of hearing. It’s very amazing how fast these professionals can type.

Knight also shows an example of how this technology can be used for people with disabilities, e.g., difficulty with speech. While it is possible to communicate with keyboard-to-speech software solutions, it is not natural and can be considered slow. Knight showed a demo of how Plover can be used for natural conversation by a person with a disability using Plover.

Should you try Plover?

Many beginners likely found benefits to learning stenography with Plover, but it does come with barriers. Due to it’s open-source nature and use by hobbyists, you may have to carry your own keyboard when typing on another device. There are also some limitations that require workaround such as for coding or special use cases. Plover may also be a barrier for other languages that have a different alphabet or more keys. Then there’s a possibility that learning a new keyboard layout and “language” may interfere with your existing skills of typing on QWERTY. Knight reports it being “annoying”, but it does not seem to affect his ability to still type on QWERTY.

I am in the very beginning stages of learning stenography and plover. If you already have a mechanical keyboard, you can get started right away with learning stenography. It is also possible to type on “regular” keyboards, but due to the limitations of pressing multiple keys (rollover, “NKRO) at once and having them all register, you may need to use a workaround similar to how “sticky keys” work on existing operating systems. Check out the videos in this post and follow Aerick’s YouTube channel and learn along with me!

Plover Project – http://www.openstenoproject.org/plover/

Updates and a Journal of My Progress

Jul 24, 2020 – Day 1
Ergonomics and a stenography typing activity analysis!
WPM: 2 – better than 0!

So it looks like my keyboard (Corsair K70) is NKRO, meaning I can smash multiple keys at once and they all register and meeting the minimum requirement for a stenotype keyboard for Plover. I tried hitting 10 keys all at once with the steno layout and they all registered! I am practicing on a Windows 10 machine as it is more ergonomic and that’s where my keyboard is.

After practicing resting my digits in between the keys in the preferred steno home position, I noticed that my fingers were getting fatigued and my wrist was not in the optimal neutral position but slightly radially deviated on both L and the R hands. The wrist started to feel uncomfortable 10-15mins into just hitting random keys and getting used to the tactile sensation and proprioception. I tried not to look at the keys too much but instead the on-screen keyboard, but periodically I would need to look down because my fingers got “lost” and drifted to an adjacent column and I was typing the wrong keys that I wanted to.

I really had to be conscious of keeping my wrist in natural or I am afraid of developing carpal tunnel or RSI issues in the future. Having used an ergonomic QWERTY in the past (where the keys are split into two and allow your shoulders to be slightly internally), I think I would prefer a split steno keyboard such as this one in the future, but for now I’ll keep practicing to see how far I get before committing to spending money on better hardware.

Source: xoxo.zone/@annika/106333364156804402

I really like Typey Type. It has an easy to user interface, is intuitive, and many  lessons to practice. You can even create your own custom one from your own words. That is pretty cool. I like the ability to change the word count and the number of words that repeat in the lesson as it can get overwhelming typing an list of entirely new words when are only still learning the keyboard layout. The brief diagrams (hints) are also very nice too or I would be lost without it and have to reference an onscreen keyboard, but the keys wouldn’t be highlighted for the word you are asked to type and I would take all little longer to visually and cognitively “find” the keys.

I can tell my neurons are firing off and trying to build neuroplasticity.

I am really glad I decided to learn stenography because as an occupational therapist, it is really insightful to use activity analysis to break down such a complicated and purposeful activity. Hopefully this gets people more interested and I can help those who are learning in the future with my lessons learned. It has so many applications for people with disabilities. Who knows, I may be able to word from home and do closed captioning or transcribing of occupational therapy lectures or work for AOTA conferences or something. That wouldn’t be for another 5 years, assuming I don’t fail and quit. I anticipate that I will gain a lot of insight into occupation of typing for research because I am basically learning to type from scratch. With QWERTY, I learned it at such a young age and so long ago that I don’t really remember what the experience was like. I do remember that typing games really helped and motivated me to learn. I didn’t really play typing games all that much, but I really attribute my high WPM to online chat with cultural activities such as chatting on ICQ, AIM. This was way before texting and even then, it was T9. Super slow.

I am curious to know if there are any OTs who know stenography or have tried Plover or simlar software!

From an occupational therapy standpoint, learning to keyboard involves so many skills: attention, visual/perceptual feedback, visual skills similar to reading (acuity, saccades, figure-ground, etc.), fine motor skills, good ergonomics and posture, tactile sensation, proprioception of fingers, recall of the keys, and transferring that knowledge into a motor pattern for the word you are typing to type, and some critical thinking as you are kind of learning a new language in a way and using what you know (English) and figuring out a new way to express it (mentally) and then translating that back to motor function. Some challenges I see from a language standpoint with the steno alphabet are the ways you are supposed to type out the words based on how they sound phonetically. For example,

  • water is keyed as WAUR or WAT/*ER.
  • were is keyed as WR
  • wear is keyed as WAER
  • war is keyed as WAR
  • wore is keyed as WOR
  • rare is keyed as RAEUR
  • tear is keyed as TAER
  • tare (as in a scale) is TA*ER

*Note: these keys are not depressed in succession, but simultaneously. Wild!

Interesting isn’t it? It’s actually quite intuitive, but thinking of a word this way and not trying to spell it and type it the “correct” way will be a challenge. It’s like speaking a new language in a different way when you already know it. English is a funny language though. In a way, keying in steno is how some English words should have been spelled phonetically. Like why is the word two is not spelled as [T][O][O]? I know there’s already a word too, too. A non-english speaker reading two would think it’s pronounced “tuhwoe”. Now I know why I did not become a speech-language pathologist – it’s hard!

I can tell my neurons are really getting worked as I have to sit there and think for seconds on seconds to type even simple 3 letter words such as: set, was, her, and part. And this is without even getting into any complicated rules or theory such as short vowels, long vowels, and diphthongs yet. A diphthong is a sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves toward another, e.g., coin, loud, and side.

At first, I thought that typing the word part would be incredibly difficult, and it was because it involved depressing 4 letters with my digits on each hand and one letter with my thumb for the [A] all at the same time, not in succession like [P]->[A]->[R]->[T], but [P][A][R][T] all altogether and then releasing to key in the word. It’s almost like your brain needs to think one step ahead in advance by having to simultaneously see multiple letters and get that out on a keyboard. If you play the piano, you probably know what I mean with things like playing chords. Actually, if you can play the piano, you might have the skills to easily learn stenography quickly because you are already used to thinking in this way and using each of your digits simultaneously to play a particular chord and then the next chord, and so on. I hope I get the hang of it building that “muscle memory” – all the performance skills and patterns working together in harmony to perform the function of keying words and ultimately sentences.

References

References
1 “Closed Captioning Web”. Captions.org. 2006-02-13. Archived from the original on March 10, 2006. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
2 https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2019/01/10/why-was-the-qwerty-keyboard-layout-invented/?sh=5fc3bd3657ae