A woman with headphones using computer with a refreshable braille display

Assistive Technology Focus: Braille Devices

12 Aug 2020

One of the best things about being in the digital accessibility field is learning about the innovative tools that give users with disabilities the ability to access and understand content they otherwise could not experience. Assistive technology (AT) allows folks with disabilities to access computers, electronic devices and the web using additional or alternative input and output methods. Examples of AT include a screen reader, the keyboard and switch devices. 

Braille display devices are fascinating, both in their complexity and range of uses. These devices translate all of the on-screen text into braille, so users who are deaf, blind, low vision or a combination can use their sense of touch to read the information from their computer or device. Many of these devices also have a braille keyboard which means that users are able to “type” in text similar to a computer keyboard or other input devices.

The braille output device is one of the only ways folks who are deafblind can access the web and other digital content–as they may not be able to see or hear the content–but they can feel it. It’s amazing to watch the pins rise up from the terminal, allowing users to independently access the information that users without disabilities easily experience everyday.

There are 3 main types of braille displays:

  1. Stand-alone braille display:  connects to another device (e.g. computer) to produce raised braille dots and “refresh” as the text content changes.
  2. Notetakers: these sophisticated devices do much more than take notes, they stream music, read e-books aloud and are compatible with many applications. 
  3. Smart display device: these are a combination of stand-alone displays and notetakers. They are often smaller, and are more compatible with utility functions–like device clocks and electronic document

Boundless Assistive Technologies, Freedom Scientific and Humanware are among the many companies that create braille displays, portable smart displays and notetakers. The American Foundation for the Blind also has plentiful resources and recommendations on these amazing devices.

Given the complexity of these devices, most are only able to display 80 characters at a time, which means users aren’t able to read at a very fast rate. Luckily, improvements are in the works. The California Institute of Technology is looking at electroactive polymers (EAPs) as a type of material that could improve these braille displays, and possibly even translate more dynamic content, like graphs and maps! See what we mean when we say “complex?”