Court Stenography machine
This article was originally written for The Plover Blog.
What is Steno Good For?
Part Three: The Ergonomic Argument
In part one I talked about how people who used speech synthesizers to communicate could use steno to speak as quickly and as easily as people who use their voices. In part two I concentrated on the fluency that steno brings to prose composition and programming. In this article I want to talk about the ergonomic benefits of steno, with special emphasis on split screen steno keyboard configurations.
When I first started studying steno, I was a qwerty transcriptionist, working for a television captioning company. Three hours of nonstop typing at breakneck speed in the morning, an hour for lunch, four more hours of frantic typing in the afternoon. By the end of the week, my wrists would be screaming, and I started to worry that my temporary day job was dooming my future career. I tried getting a Microsoft Natural keyboard, which claimed to offer a more ergonomic slope to the wrists, but I didn't stop feeling that Friday ache until I was able to abandon qwerty and start using my steno keyboard at work. I mentioned previously how typing each letter of each word can interfere with the smooth flow of composition, and in a subsequent article I'll get into more detail about the speed differential between qwerty and steno, but the relative potential for long-term physiological damage is just as important to mention.
In courtroom dramas on TV, you'll often see a court reporter sitting next to the bench, hammering away on an old avocado-colored steno machine while their notes stream into the paper tray. (Most steno machines these days use LCD screens instead of paper, but I guess directors find the old-fashioned ones more picturesque.) Sometimes TV shows actually go out of their way to cast real court reporters, but more often they'll just get a likely-looking extra, put her in a beehive and hornrims, and tell her to look stenographical. Do you know how to tell the difference between the real ones and the fakers? It's easy.
Watch their hands. Heck, even easier: Watch their forearms. The fakers will be frantically wriggling their fingers, assuming that the only way to keep up with the cross examination is to twiddle away like Glenn Gould on uppers.
The real ones, on the other hand, will be making one clean, relaxed stroke every half-second or so. Their hands will make small lateral movements across the keyboard, but the force of each stroke will come from their forearms, not their wrists or their fingers.
If an average word is six letters long, a qwerty typist has to move their fingers up and down six times in the space of a second to type 60 words a minute. That requires engaging the entire arm, from fingertip to shoulder, rapidly and without any rest for as long as the typist is typing. As one finger finishes firing, another steps up immediately, and the more quickly someone tries to type, the more violent and uncontrolled their motions become.
In steno, by contrast, you get a 14% bonus right off the bat (again, assuming that 6-letter average word length), because there's no space bar; all spaces are inserted automatically by the software. Then you get the ergonomic advantage of pushing each stroke statically from the forearm, like a pianist playing chords, rather than bearing the full force of each stroke a finger at a time. That cuts down on the overall percussive shock. There's also the crucial rest interval between each stroke, which allows the stenographer to relax, redistribute their fingers, and move back onto the keyboard for the next stroke, rather than forcing them to keep their hands always tense and wiggling, a major cause of cramping and typist's claw. And then, of course, the most obvious advantage is that for every six qwerty strokes you type, you only type one in steno. While you're racing feverishly to keep up at 90 WPM, in steno it gets almost boring if the speed drops below 180.
Now, all this is not to say that stenographers never get repetitive stress injuries. Type 40 hours a week for decades, plus countless hours of transcript editing, and even that 700% efficiency advantage won't necessarily spare your hands and fingers. Most stenographers use fixed keyboards that force them to hold their wrists parallel to the floor, an unnatural and unhealthy angle. I started on one of those myself, and coupled with the qwerty typing in my day job, I found the first part of steno school - when I was only writing at 140 to 160 words per minute, six hours a week - a painful and worrying experience. My dad, an infrequent computer user who hunted and pecked at a snail's pace, had recently undergone surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, and I knew genetics were often a factor in RSIs.
While still a student, I decided to buy the most ergonomic machine on the market. The choice was simple. Only the Neutrino Group line (the Gemini, Gemini2, Piper, Evolution, and Revolution) allowed not only for a more natural wrist angle - 45 degrees to the ground rather than parallel - but, crucially, it also allowed for minor adjustments to be made quickly and easily in a wide range of motion. Now when I feel a twinge, I slightly adjust the yaw, pitch, or roll, and I feel a different set of muscles kicking in to take over for the fatigued ones. I'm not a pitchman for the Neutrino Group by any means (though I've given them favorable reviews, I've always made sure to mention both pros and cons), but they have a fair amount of anecdotal data showing that court reporters with severe RSI problems who switched to Gemini machines were able to lessen or eliminate their pain and numbness in a significant number of cases.