What To Know ... Before You Buy A Braille Display

Posted by Rob Mineault on

All one has to do is look at the cost for an average refreshable Braille Display in order to realize buying one is a MAJOR purchase. Refreshable Braille Displays can run anywhere from $1500 all the way up to almost $10,000, so it’s vital that  you know all the facts and be clear on what you need the display for. Every display is different and has different strengths or weaknesses, so it’s important to be well informed on each and have a clear understanding of how refreshable Braille Displays work before you invest your money into one so that you can acquire the one that will work best for your needs.

So, just what is refreshable Braille and how does it work?

Simply put, a refreshable braille display is a piece of hardware that provides braille output from your computer, smartphone, or tablet. All displays have 8-dot refreshable braille cells--refreshable because they change (or refresh), according to the part of the screen that is currently in focus. Each group of 8 dots -- which are made up of rounded tipped pins that are driven up and down through holes on the surface of the unit -- are called cells.These cells are not only the core element of what makes the display work, but are also directly responsible for the cost of the unit. The more cells that a Display has, the more expensive the unit is. Typically, Braille Displays come in 18, 32, 40,  and 80 cell versions.

Most displays will work by displaying one line of braille at a time, which corresponds to the line that the computer is focused on. For example, if you were in Microsoft Word, the display would show the line that the cursor is sitting on, at the insertion point. If the cursor was sitting in a dialogue box, the display would show the information around the active control and the surrounding controls (although this would vary depending on the settings the user had in their screen reader). Buttons on the Braille Display or the keyboard commands on the connected device would move the focus to the next line.

Picture of Braille CellEach braille cell on a braille display can show up to 8 dots. With English Braille, dots 1 through 6 are reserved to display traditional Braille, which can be uncontracted or contracted Braille (uncontracted being the letters A through Z, while contracted is a type of Braille ‘shorthand’). The last two dots at the bottom of the cell are labeled as 7 and 8 and are used to show such things as cursor position, capitalization, highlighting, or several other conditions or attributes. There are also some other Braille languages (European in particular) that also use dots 7 and 8 as part of their standard Braille.

The screen reader is what ties the Braille Display to the connected device and really serves as what drives the Braille Display. The screen reader is what sends the information to the hardware that then operates the pins of the braille cell to make the resulting electronic Braille. The screen reader comes with a variety of different settings that can be tailored to a user’s preferences. For example, you can choose the type of Braille to be displayed or even choose a 6 or 8 dot Braille preference.

Many Braille Displays also feature keys on the unit themselves that mirror the functions of a computer keyboard. This is so the user doesn’t have to constantly move their fingers from the Braille Display up to the keyboard to do such things as hit the TAB key to scroll between elements in the document.

The Cursor

The ever-present blinking computer cursor (that is the bane of many a blog writer’s existence -- we spend far too many hours looking at that winking vertical line as we try to think of something to write) is quite often represented on the Braille Display by dots 7 and 8 bouncing up and down. As usual, the screen reader will give the user several options (different dot configurations or blinking or not blinking) to choose from.

Cursor Routing Buttons

One of the mainstay features of all Braille Displays are the cursor routing buttons. The cursor routing buttons are generally a row of buttons that sit just above  the line of refreshable braille cells and by pressing one of these the user is able to move the cursor to the cell below the cursor routing key that was pressed.

These cursor routing keys can also be used to emulate mouse clicks. Users can do such things as activate hyperlinks, mark checkboxes in online forms, or even choose menu items. Editing spelling mistakes can be much easier using these keys as the routing keys can be used to move the cursor directly to the incorrect character. Online forms can be a breeze using the routing keys since it removes some of the guesswork that a user would have to go through using just a conventional keyboard -- the routing keys can put the cursor right where you want it before you start the process of filling out that particular field’s information.

Status Cells

Some Braille Displays have a feature known as status cells. Depending on the model of Braille Display, three, four, or five of the braille cells can display information and attributes such as bolded, underlined, or italicized text. Most Braille Displays and screen readers will give the user options on where these cells are on the display, or whether they want them to display at all.

What’s Some of the Advantages of a Braille Display?

Well, this is an easy one to answer. In addition to the many features we’ve already talked about, some examples where a Braille Display would come in extremely handy for would be:

  • For someone who is Deaf-Blind and unable to use speech output
  • A job that require a lot of telephone work or a student who needs to be aware of what is being said in class. Needless to say, listening to speech output while trying to absorb what a teacher is saying or what a customer is trying to tell you could be challenging. With a Braille Display, speech output can be turned off entirely while the user is still able to use the connected device using braille.
  • For someone who does a lot of editing and/or proofreading. Speech output can make it hard to maintain perfect formatting since it can miss such things as extra spaces, improper capitalization -- things that become very apparent in braille output.
  • If you surf the Web a lot, a Braille Display makes things much easier to navigate web pages using the cursor routing keys.

How Do I Choose a Braille Display?

Picture of a Braille Display Connected to a LaptopLike most big ticket purchases, the ideal way to choose which make or model of Braille Display is right for you would be to try out various models and see how they feel and work for you. There are a variety of models for the very fact that every user has their own unique set of needs and preferences.

Of course, not living in a perfect world, the ability to try out a host of different models isn’t generally something that consumers have access to. Therefore, we’d recommend the second best thing, which would be to talk with a Assistive Technology specialist about what your specific needs are so they could consult you on what would be the right fit for you.

And, as it just so happens, we here at Canadian Assistive Technology, have just such a person.

Ryan Fleury is not only our Blindness Product specialist, but also a huge advocate for Braille Literacy and has been an active user of multiple screen readers and Braille devices for over 15 years.  If you have any questions about the different Braille Displays and whether they may be a good fit for you, he can be reached at 1-844-795-8324 ext. 1001 or by email ryan@canasstech.com.

Of course, Ryan isn’t the only resource (although he’d like to think so) around. There are many online sources of information including manufacturer websites, Facebook groups, and community forums where other users of electronic Braille can exchange experiences. The Assistive Technology for the Blind and Visually Impaired Group is one such good example of this.

How Many Cells Do I Need?

Picture of different Braille Display Types - 32 cell, 40 cell, 80 cellThe short answer to this fairly popular question is it depends on what kind of work you’ll be doing with the Braille Display. Braille Displays come in a wide variety of sizes, from 12 cells all the way up to 84. Proofreading or editing braille that is formatted on a standard sized sheet of paper would be around 40 characters long, so a 40 or 44 cell Braille Display would afford you the luxury of being able to read the entire line without panning. Panning is what happens when text is too long to fit on the display, causing the user to have to ‘pan’ either to the left or right to continue reading along the line. For example, if you’re using a 20 cell Braille Display and you’re needing to read a 72 character line, you’ll have to ‘pan’ over at least twice in order to read it all.

So as for the question itself, you’ll have to weigh the cost of extra cells against how often you’ll be wanting to pan.

What’s Screen Reader Compatibility?

The relationship between software and hardware can always been a tenuous one, especially when you factor in multiple manufacturers. Given that there are multiple screen readers on the market today and many Braille Display manufacturers, it’s not surprising that some screen reader / Braille Display combinations work better than others. Your best bet when trying to determine how compatible your favorite screen reader is with the Braille Display you’re interested in is to check the screen reader’s online help and see if there is a large list commands assigned to that Braille Display. The more commands there are, the easier it will be to use the Display through shortcut keys, making it much easier to work faster and more efficiently.

Are the Buttons and Switches on the Display Comfortable for you?

With any Display you decide on, comfort and ease of use is going to be paramount. After all, you’ll be spending a lot of time with the Display, so making sure the buttons move easily (but not so easy that it might result in accidental activations) is important. Make sure you check the cursor routing buttons as well when you’re testing out a potential Display. Some routing buttons can require a firmer touch than others. Give all the buttons and cells a good test and make sure you like the way they feel and how they perform their assigned functions.

What are the Support and Repair Options for the Display?

This can also be very important. Keep in mind that Braille Display cells have a LOT of moving parts and can be somewhat delicate. Something as simple as liquid spilled on the display or dropping it can dramatically impact the functionality of the unit, so it’s important to have a repair or servicing option available to you.

As well, Braille Displays can have a somewhat steep learning curve when it comes to being able to learn how to use them to their full potential. Being able to learn all the different key commands for different shortcuts that work with your screen reader, for example can be overwhelming. Having a support or training option available to you can ensure that you are able to use your new Display to its full potential.

That’s why at Canadian Assistive Technology we offer our clients training, support, and servicing options to make sure that the Assistive Technology they’ve purchased continues to  work properly and that the customer has all the tools needed to make the most out of these important pieces of technology. After sale care has always been something that has been an important aspect of our relationships with our customers, and we’ve always made it a priority to ensure that they are supported in every way they need.

Shameless plugs aside, no matter where you decide to purchase your Display from, make sure you ask questions about support or training for your new device -- it just may serve to be invaluable to you in the long run.

How Does the Braille Display Connect to the Computer or Device?

A standard USB cable is generally how you’ll be connecting the device to a desktop computer, although you can also use Bluetooth if you’re looking to pair it to a Smartphone, Tablet, or Laptop.

How are Braille Displays Powered?

This can vary from model to model. The Braille Displays that are designed for maximum portability usually have their own internal power supply, meaning they won’t need to be plugged into an outlet. These are great for users who take their displays to work and school and connect them to laptops since they’re not restricted to needing to ensure that they are sitting near an outlet. These internal power supplies generally take the form of rechargeable batteries.

Many Braille Displays of course still have an external power supply as an option, while some others are powered through the USB connector. Be aware that in those cases, the Display will be drawing its power from the device it’s connected USB cable to, and will directly impact that device’s battery usage.

Does Size Matter?

Ok, stop giggling. What we’re referring to here is of course the footprint that the Braille Display will have on any given work space. You may be chagrined to discover that you put out a ton of money for an 80 cell Braille Display, only to not have it fit on your favorite work desk. So take that into consideration when you’re shopping.

What’s Your Budget?

And this, of course, is the $640,000 question. We can’t help you with this, but just keep in mind the aforementioned rule of thumb .. the more cells the Braille Display has, the more expensive it’s going to be. You’ll have to carefully balance what you want to spend and the number of cells that will be the most use to you.

We’re Almost Done, But One More Option

There are some Braille-based Notetakers on the market (such as the BrailleNote Touch from Humanware and the BrailleSense Polaris from HIMS) that can be used as braille displays with screen readers. This could be particularly useful since you would get all the additional functions of a Notetaker along with the Braille Display, usually for a lower cost. The downside to this option, however, is the fact that these devices would not be able to be placed under the keyboard like a Braille Display and would instead be needed to be placed off to the side -- which would mean that there would be a lot of hand and arm movement. This may not be an ideal option for someone that uses the device for longer periods of time.

You Just Bought Your Braille Display, Now What?

Practice, practice, practice! Make sure you read all the documentation that came with it, do plenty of research online, and make sure you understand all its functions and commands. Braille Displays are powerful pieces of hardware and you’ll want to ensure you are using it to its full capacity. And, if you’ve bought it from Canadian Assistive Technology, you’ll be eligible to call in for support if you run into any problems or have questions about it’s operations. Be patient, persistent, and open to learning all about your new device!

And That’s It!

A Braille Display is most certainly a big investment, but also an incredible powerful tool. It can dramatically enhance and make your work on a computer much more efficient.

For any further questions about anything related to Braille Displays that we didn’t cover here (and don’t worry, there was plenty), feel free to contact any of us here at Canadian Assistive Technology at 1-844-795-8324 or reach out to Ryan Fleury at ryan@canasstech.com.

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