My RSI Experience

I have suffered from RSI problems since at least 1982. It was a very specific problem in that our exams were three hours long to prepare us for our O Level exams the following year. My wrist was burning with pain by the time I had reached the bottom of the first page of my exam booklet. The rest of the exam was pure agony. I first noticed the problem in my History exam when I reached the bottom of the first page at the same time as my close friend from the history class, but where I struggled for the rest of the exam, my friend kept writing at the same speed. This problem continued through my A Levels and university undergraduate years. To show how little support was available in the 1980s I went to the head of my university department in my first week and asked for special treatment due to this long-term disability. His response was to pick up my folder and say, "You did very well in your A Level results. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

About the same time that I first developed RSI I was getting into computers. I went each day before the school day started with a couple of friends into the school computer lab, which was basically a former broom cupboard with four computers in it. I always used the BBC Archimedes computer, which was designed to encourage computer use in schools, while my more technically gifted friends worked on the proper computers. My parents offered me an incentive to do well in my O Levels and asked would I like an expensive watch. My immediate answer was that I wanted a computer, preferably a BBC, but I ended up instead with the cheaper Commodore 64. Just as I had done in the computer lab I used the computer as a games machines, while my friends got into programming them. I did have office software for the Commodore, but because I took so long to save files and I did not have a printer I did not use it for my studies. Then when I began a PhD in 1991 I realised that I needed a decent computer and bought a Amstrad PCW. Suddenly I discovered that computers were not just fascinating, but the way to solve my RSI problems, which were linked to holding a pen. So unlike many who RSI developed in more recent decades computers were the cure rather than the cause of my RSI. From that point onwards I hardly picked up a pen and used a computer keyboard for all my writing.

I did not develop computer-related RSI until 2017 when I was in the middle of writing what was my longest book. The only reason that it is no longer my longest book is that it related to Brexit and I now work in the political realm, so the book had to be taken off sale due my requirement to be politically impartial. The RSI was so severe that I could not use a keyboard for several months. I switched back to using Windows so that I could use dictation in Word and let the computer do the typing for me. The problem was that Microsoft does not handle County Down accents very well and I ended up having to use the keyboard to correct up to half of the words. So eventually I went back to using the keyboard, but stuck with Windows and Word until the end of the writing project in case I had to return to using dictation, but I did not have to do so. In fact, the RSI had mostly disappeared due to spending a few months restricting my writing to dictation plus corrections due on the keyboard. The computer-related RSI did not return for three years in 2020.

My main problem in 2017 had been caused by continuous typing on my keyboard up to sixteen hours each day. In 2020 I had a day job, which meant that I was protected from typing all hours of the day. Indeed I had not been a full-time writer since the tail-end of 2017. My 2020 computer-related RSI began with a reaction to mouse use. I now realise that the problem was that I was using a very small mouse that was designed for use when travelling. It was an easy mouse to carry around, but I am 5' 11" and the mouse was inappropriately small for my hands. That RSI caused by mouse use soon extended to pain in typing and eventually even in using the touchpad on my laptop. Unfortunately I was in the midst of another long-term writing project and as a lot of my writing was done while commuting or in tea breaks at work it was not appropriate to return to dictation. By the time I finished that writing project my RSI was not limited to when I was typing. I now have permanent pain in my right hand and when I type the pain can extend all the way to my elbow. The pain is 24 hours a day and I began putting together the Our Sip Linux website to help me think through how I was to avoid this disability ending my writing career.

My hope for this website is that I can use my four decades of being an enthusiastic computer end-user and two decades as a Linux geek to suggest ways to working around RSI problems that those with less computer knowledge may not have thought of. In part I have been inspired by the website of fellow RSI sufferer Xah Lee. However his website is written very clearly for his fellow IT professionals and I wanted to put together a site that focused on those who were using a computer, rather than being computer professionals. More general computer users will still find a lot of value in Xah's site, especially if you are considering investing in RSI friendly keyboards or mice. Another limitation with Xah's site is that although he worked for many years as a Unix system administrator he appears to have limited knowledge of Linux. This is most evident when he described Linux as a poor operating system for changing key bindings. In fact, it is simplicity itself. The problem was that Xah examined the idiosyncrasies of a variety of major Linux desktop environments, without realising that use of the Fluxbox window manager or the independent tool sxhkd make altering keybindings much more RSI friendly than the mouse driven techniques of Windows, MacOS, or the maybe Linux desktop environments. It really takes someone who is a long-term and regular Linux user to see these RSI friendly solutions, just as I would be a poor advisor in how to use MacOS as I have not used a Mac since 2009. So although I want to address RSI issues more broadly in this website it is called Our Sip Linux because Linux is what I know best.

Xah Lee Keyboard Blog