Braille display with iPad

Using Braille with iOS – What’s It Like?

Cristina Hartmann has written very clearly about what it’s like to use a refreshable braille display (RFBD) with her iPhone. This interesting description is recommended for all sighted users who wonder how braille displays work and what they are like to use, and especially for people who will be supporting braille users.

Close shot of ten cells from a braille display
This close-up shot shows how the dots on a braille display are raised and lowered to change the output. Each “cell” of 2 rows of 4 dots each represents a letter, number, or symbol.

This article was originally printed on Quora, as an answer for the question What is it like to use a refreshable braille display with a laptop or tablet? and I am grateful to Cristina for permission to reprint it here. All text that follows in Cristina’s:

How iOS Accessibility Features Work: the Basics

It helps to understand how refreshable braille displays (RFBDs) get information from the device. Apple has a software called VoiceOver that enables blind and low vision customers to navigate iPads and iPhones (the actual use of it is slightly different on the laptop, but the basic concept is the same.) RFBs depend on VoiceOver for textual and limited navigational support.

VoiceOver is more than text-to-speech software. It’s a way of organizing and displaying visual information into words (spoken or in braille). Using either gestures or RFBD commands, you can navigate between different apps, read text, switch settings (eg spelling and grammar and menu features).

The best way to think about using VoiceOver is to think of your finger(s) as your eyes. When I drag my finger across the screen, VoiceOver will verbally (or in braille) identify what my finger is hovering over. For example, if I drag my finger over over the Safari app, VoiceOver will say, “Safari” Then you can double tap anywhere on the screen to enter the Safari app.

The Vario 24-cell braille display is one of the smallest available.
The Vario 24-cell braille display is one of the smallest available.

VoiceOver can be tricky for someone who knows the traditional gestures for iPad/iPhone. You’ll have to get used to not being able to swipe with one finger (two fingers), and so on. But once you understand the logic of using your fingers as your eyes, it’s quite intuitive.

The best way to imagine what VoiceOver navigation is like is to think about each “setting” (major operation within an application) as an app of its own. When a VoiceOver user is navigating website, they can switch the setting to only headlines. Therefore, they only see headlines of the page. Once they select a headline, they can go into the actual article. It’s a very focused way of thinking about visual information.

How RFBs work with VoiceOver

In the simplest, most crude terms, RFBDs display what the VoiceOver says, but they also do a bit more than that.

In addition to displaying VoiceOver speech in braille, there are keys and various tabs on any RFBD. These keys and tabs can be used for navigation and typing. All of the RFBs that I’ve seen have what they call Perkins keyboard, which is based on the Perkins Brailler. With the Perkins keyboard, it’s pretty easy to type direct braille, but it’s tough if you’re more used to touch typing.

Alva braille display
On this Alva braille display, near the top of the picture, the Perkins braille entry keys are visible. In the middle is a large rectangular “space” key, with eight keys on each side corresponding to the eight dots in a braille cell.

Some RFB-specific commands include:

  • Toggling between contracted and uncontracted braille
  • Turning the speech on/off (if you’re easing long-form text or just want it to be quiet, this is really useful)

The navigation on the RFB is pretty limited. You’ll still need to use the touch-based screen VoiceOver commands.

Using a RFB

For someone who is used to navigating a tablet visually, it’s a strange experience.

For a newbie, it’s kind of awkward to juggle two devices at once. Since my RFB is bluetooth and I still need to touch the screen to navigate, I can’t have my device too far away. Also, you’ll accidentally touch the screen and lose your place … at least once.

Logistically, it’s still easier for me to listen to VoiceOver while navigating the screen since I’d need to have one hand on the RFB and the other on the device. Also, you need to be a fast Braille reader for the navigation alerts (I’ll probably get better in the future).

Interestingly, actually reading is easier on a RFB than it is on paper. The dots are more consistent and you won’t get mixed up between different lines (common problem with paper braille books). Also, have you seen braille books? They’re huge. Added bonus: your thumb doesn’t get in the way on the RFB. So, it’s a more comfortable reading experience on the RFB.

Stacked up braille volumes from 1959 World Book Encyclopedia.
Braille books really are huge – this is part of the braille edition of the 1959 World Book Encyclopedia. The regular edition was 20 moderate sized volumes, the braille edition was 45 volumes and each one was 2-4 times the size of the regular volumes.

More Information

For a more in-depth discussion of RFBD capabilities and navigation, chapter 10 of Apple’s VoiceOver user manual covers braille displays.

Cristina Hartmann

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