From Homeless to Hopeful: how a smartphone keyboard helped turn a life around

July 26, 2021
How a 36-year-old with progressive rheumatoid arthritis used Typewise keyboard to get his life back

Here at Typewise we get lots of feedback from our users; ideas, feature requests, bug reports. But we recently received a message which completely and utterly humbled us.

Russ Miller, a 36-year-old American suffering from progressive rheumatoid arthritis contacted us to say that Typewise had helped him turn his life around. He had gone from being homeless and jobless, to being able to get help, find a place to live, even get a job.

At first, we were shocked and surprised that someone was attributing such dramatic life changes to what is – at the end of the day – just a (very good) smartphone keyboard app. But Russ’ backstory is one that none of the Typewise team had ever remotely considered before.

We knew people liked our unique honeycomb layout, enjoyed our superior autocorrect AI and valued typing with 100% privacy but we never considered that our keyboard could help someone with a disability in such a profound way.

Russ was kind enough to share his story with us, and it was such an inspiring story that we wanted to share it with more people. Because maybe, there are more people like Russ – people who suffer from deformed or disfigured hands with reduced dexterity – who Typewise could help too.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your condition?

I’m Russ Miller from Ohio in the US and I have what they call Progressive Rheumatoid Arthritis. It’s an autoimmune condition where your body attacks your joints.

It gets worse and worse with time. The arthritis started when I was 26, and I’m now 36. Before, I was a great typist. I even won an award for typing on a computer but I can't do that anymore. It's not possible unless I want to take a couple of days to type a paragraph.

My hands are deformed. So they're not shaped properly and I can't bend them like everyone else can. Recently my thumb has stopped working, so I can't bend it. I can no longer use normal computer keyboards. It’s hard for me to even hold a pen anymore. Sometimes I need help opening containers and things like that.

Rheumatoid Arthritis has deformed Russ' hands, making them progressively more difficult to use (image: Creakyjoints.org)

My arthritis led to lots of other issues. I didn't know how to be an adult, I didn't know how to take care of myself. I was homeless in Florida for about four years. During this time my family passed away and I was the only one left apart from my sister, but we weren’t talking.

This led to the darkest period of my life. I almost died when I was homeless. I was sleeping rough, on concrete in Florida at a bus station. One night, while I was asleep, three guys started attacking me. They stabbed the guy on the bench next to me in the neck and stabbed me in my leg. I could barely walk but I knew I had to get away from there or I was going to die, so I ran.

Over time, my feet got worse, both with rheumatoid arthritis and the damage of running with no shoes on and having to kick somebody to defend myself; I broke my arm and my right foot.

So it was a pretty bad time for me. But I survived it. I have to get surgery and take medicine for the rest of my life. But I'm still alive.

Russ was homeless for 4 years. Photo by Mihály Köles

When did you start to turn your life around and how did Typewise play its part?

Things started to get better around the end of 2018. I was trying to get help and get myself out of my situation. I had a phone, but no phone service (phone number). When you’re homeless and have no address, it’s hard to get things like that. So instead of calling help centres, I was trying to contact them via their social media channels, using text messages to communicate.

But I struggled typing on a smartphone, and a keyboard in general. So I started looking for alternative smartphone keyboards that might enable me to type again. I found Typewise by accident. I was looking for keyboards that might help and stumbled upon a Reddit thread where Typewise was mentioned. And I thought - this looks different - I'll try it out. It's been progressively helping me further and further.

With Typewise I was able to communicate a lot better than talking, because my voice is kind of monotone so people don't understand me very well. And because I was able to start typing on my phone again, I was able to use social media to reach out to an organisation that helps people with disabilities.

That led to me getting a personal assistant who helped me start getting my life back. She helps me get everything together. If I can't write something, then she can write it for me and I just sign it; it makes it easier, because it's hard for me to hold a pen now.

So Typewise really, really helps me communicate with the right services and people who can help me make it. Without that I don't think I would have made it as far as I have.

Typewise has also helped me to find something to do with my life. Now I have a part time job where I take care of dogs and cats; Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can't work full time, because of my physical issues but at least I have something to do and something to look forward to.

What is it about the Typewise keyboard that helps you?

It’s the hexagonal layout of the keyboard. I find that it’s a whole lot easier for me to move my fingers around and not mess up as often.

I've tried lots of other keyboards, ones with larger keys designed for older people or people who have physical problems, like not being able to see properly, but those didn't help me very much.

I also tried SwiftKey for a while but it had too much going on and it wasn't really working the way that I wanted. I struggled all the time to type a complete sentence without it being jumbled up and people always had to ask what I was trying to say.

All of the other smartphone keyboards I have tried are roughly the same. And their AI doesn't work well for me. I needed something that was different; a different kind of layout that was easier for me to access. With all the other keyboards I have tried it is harder for me to move my fingers around without pain, and I have to take breaks.

But every single day I use Typewise keyboard to communicate, and I like doing it. It feels fun and it empowers me to speak with people.

What about voice activated services – Alexa, OK Google etc – do you use these to communicate?

Yes I have tried, but I don't currently use such services. The reason for that is that I just much prefer to express myself by typing and I don't like the amount of data they collect. I used to work with the military when I was younger and I was taught that privacy is very important. So I try to stay away from things that collect too much data.

I think privacy is very important but a lot of people don't understand the importance of it. They'll just say they don't have anything to hide, but there's always something personal that you want to keep private. So the fact that Typewise is a privacy keyboard also appeals to me.

Is there anything that would make Typewise a keyboard better for you?

Not anymore. There used to be before the beta version; your AI used to be kind of hard to use but now it works very well. It doesn't give me any issues. The only thing I would change isn't really a useful factor, it's just for looks; it would be great to have a better option for theming the keyboard to match other things.

There is one other thing which could help me. Because my hands are progressively getting worse, there might be some keys that I find harder to reach in future. So being able to switch some of those keys around to suit my hand would really help; customising the layout where each key is placed would solve some issues down the road as my hands get worse.

Are there any other smartphone tools that you use to help you?

I'm part of a lot of different beta projects and testing teams for different apps, just because it's fun and I like to contribute and help. I use Niagara Launcher which is a minimalist Android home screen optimized for one-handed access. Together with Typewise that makes it so quick and easy to access apps and do just about anything. I think Niagara Launcher and Typewise work better together than any other keyboard. It would be great if you guys could team up together somehow – maybe using similar gestures or something.

Your story is both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. Thank you for taking the time to share it. We hope it will inspire not just more people who might have trouble typing on smartphones to try Typewise, but also serve as inspiration to others about how it’s possible to get your life back on track after experiencing the darkest of days.

You're welcome. I've struggled for too many years. But I refuse to just accept defeat and do nothing about it. And that's how I ended up discovering Typewise because I was frustrated with my circumstances and wanted something that would help me.

When I use Typewise I'm no longer frustrated when I communicate with people and it's just so much easier for me. I never thought something like that was possible.

I've really struggled with how to get the word out, to try and show people what I've done to help myself. And this is part of that. Finding Typewise and using it has been a fantastic tool and helped me progress, and be able to do things with my life. I honestly don't think I could have got to where I am now, if I didn't have it.

If you know anyone who suffers from arthritis or other hand issues or injuries, who might benefit from using Typewise as an alternative smartphone keyboard like Russ – please share this article with them too.