Living With Polio

Computer Comfort

Whatever difficulties you are grappling with – visual or hearing impairment, mobility challenges, invisible disabilities and chronic conditions – there is a way to access cyberspace. Computers bring the world to you and enable you to enter the world. Communication, education, entertainment, shopping, employment–it’s all available thanks to ongoing technological advances.

It isn’t possible for this chapter to cover the huge range of adaptability devices that are available – there are numerous websites and publications dedicated to that – and computer accessibility is changing so fast that whatever is written now may be surpassed by new inventions in the near future. The purpose of this chapter is to increase your comfort and enjoyment and ensure that you don’t develop new problems from using your computer.

Between surfing the internet, corresponding with friends and family, participating in chat rooms, ordering products on-line, where does the time go? Hours can pass before you realize that you’re really uncomfortable and hurting. This can put you at risk for problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, bursitis, neck and back pain – all resulting from poor seating and chronic, continuous overuse of the hands and arms. Headaches, eyestrain, tension and fatigue also come with the territory.

People didn’t develop these conditions before computers came along, even if typing was their full-time job. What has changed? For one thing, we type much faster on a computer keyboard–thousands of keystrokes per hour. And there are no breaks- -we don’t have to shift at the end of each line or stop at the bottom of each page to insert fresh paper. And typewriters didn’t require staring at a monitor endlessly.

The problems are compounded if your computer workstation doesn’t fit you. Here, then, are some recommendations to help you arrange and adjust your work environment to fit you and your body. They won’t all apply to everyone–just utilize whatever fits your situation.

Choosing a chair.
Sit down and check the depth of the seat from front to back. Too shallow and your thighs won’t be supported, too deep and your back won’t be supported. See if the seat height can be adjusted so your hips are slightly higher than your knees to allow better blood flow to the legs. Check out whether the armrests can be adjusted for proper support. I’ve found that sitting on a wedge-shaped cushion with the high part at the back is not only very comfortable but facilitates better sitting posture.

Supporting the low back is important for everyone and if your neck muscles are weak you might also need neck support. You can purchase lumbar and cervical pillows by mail order and from medical supply stores, including some models filled with buckwheat husks which can be adjusted to your own contours. One economical idea is to make your own cushions by putting fiberfill (used for stuffed toys) into a piece of stockinette tubing. You can buy fiberfill at a fabric store, and stockinette tubing at a medical supply store. Leave the ends of the tubing long enough to tie around the chair. Some people tie the ends around their waist so they always have their lumbar support with them as they move from place to place in their home.

Make your desk user-friendly.
Start by establishing a comfort zone on your desk. This is the area you can reach easily without having to stretch. Determine your comfort zone by making a semicircle with each arm and then place the things you use frequently within that zone. The lighting – preferably indirect lighting to reduce glare–should be on your left side if you are right-handed and right side if you are left-handed.

Use energy-saving equipment.
Use a telephone head set or Bluetooth earpiece to eliminate the need to grip the telephone and take the strain off your arm and neck. Invest in an electric stapler, electric pencil sharpener, electric scissors.

Keep your wrists in neutral.
The keyboard and mouse should be at a level that keeps your wrists straight. Keep your shoulders relaxed and elbows close to your body. A too-high keyboard is one of the most frequent flaws at computer workstations, and if your wrists are bent upward or downward while you’re typing, you’ll be at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. Some desks have a pull-out drawer in front that lowers the keyboard. Using an ergonomic keyboard which splits in the middle can also help keep your wrists straight instead of deviating to the side. Placing the keyboard on a lap desk has worked well for some people. You can also change the height of your chair, but if you need to raise the chair make sure your feet don’t dangle. Ways to support the feet include a commercial foot rest, a stack of telephone books or a large 3-ring notebook binder. If you need to recline while using the computer, use a wireless keyboard, trackpad, or mouse.

Mouse matters.
To decrease repetitive motion, vary the type of mouse you use. An alternative mouse functions like a regular mouse but is designed to accommodate different needs. Try changing between a traditional mouse and one of the many alternatives: track balls, trackpads, optical mice, head pointers, voice recognition systems, and keyboards with different layouts to accommodate various hand positions. There is a mouse to fit every type of demand–no need to overwork your hands. If, however, you still have pain or your arms fatigue quickly using the mouse or keyboard, a voice recognition system might be the answer. As prices decline and technology improves, these systems become more affordable and less daunting to learn.

The monitor matters.
The monitor should be easy on the eyes. Reduce the contrast on the screen as much as possible and position the screen about 18-25 inches from your eyes. The top of the screen should be at eye level but if you wear bifocal or trifocal glasses a slightly lower screen will keep your head in the proper position.

When you need to copy from a document, place it in a document holder attached to the side of the monitor so it is the same height and distance as the screen. Copying from a document right in front of you is much easier than swiveling your head back and forth.

Take frequent breaks and stretches.
Optometric studies have shown that people tend to blink less and open their eyes wider when looking at a computer screen. This causes dryness that can lead to fatigue, a burning sensation, difficulty focusing, and headaches. Blink often and look around the room every few minutes. Rest your eyes by leaning your elbows on your desk and cupping your hands lightly over your closed eyes for a minute or two.

Stretch your joints every few minutes while you’re sitting. Pull your fingers of one hand backwards with the other hand until you feel a mild pull in the wrist, then stretch in the opposite direction. Make a fist, then stretch the fingers outward. Lean backwards and forwards, then bend side to side. Stretch your arms sideways, then touch your fingertips to your shoulders and circle your shoulders backwards and forwards. Do this sitting down so you won’t lose your balance. Place your hands on your shoulders with elbows out to the side. Pull your arms backwards as if you’re trying to squeeze your shoulder blades together, then make circles backwards and forwards.

Do breathing exercises. Breathe in deeply through your nose and then exhale very slowly with your lips pursed.

© 2000-2008 Grace R. Young
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark.

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