Of course you can do that, I have been able to do it since the mid 90'sWhat I do, on Windows, is move the taskbar to the sides.
This is to protect the vertical (up:down) real estate, which is 50 times
more precious than side-to-side real estate on most HD screens.
On Linux, unfortunately, it can't be done due to Gnome bugs that make
putting the menus on the sides impossible to use once you open 7 or more
with no issues at all, just see to have a window manager or desktop
environment which isn't done by people thinking a document they wrote is
the answer to all desktop issues.
KDE works fine having panels at the sides, if you think it's too heavy
environment, then you can use CTWM which allows you to configure
elements where ever you want them, these two are the extremes.
For the OP, if he would use kcm_touchpad, he could disable the touchpad
quite easily when ever he wants.