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Atechability

Atechability Number 8: I’m on Pins and Braille

Want to read more about the, “Cool gadgets with the moving buttons?” This article will tell you all about them! Oh, by the way, the name of these are, “Braille Displays.” Read on for more information!

On this edition of Atechability, we will be discussing a little device called the, “Braille Display.” We will not focus on a specific model, but I will be going through what all displays have and how to operate them. Braille displays can come in different sizes, which we will discuss shortly. Keep reading, don’t be impatient! Patience is a virtue.

What Is A Braille Display?

A Braille Display is essentially a braille screen for the blind, which you can connect to a computer. What the computer displays on the screen visually, the blind can read in braille. Just remember, a screen reader is required for the braille display to work properly. Check out this article I have written for more information on screen readers. However, you cannot read graphics on it. The braille display consists of only one line for braille output. This line can be as long as regular card stock paper, (forty cells) to even two card stock paper lengths! (eighty cells) I am using the standard card stock paper for measurements here.
A picture of a forty cell braille display. This display has a series of buttons on the front from left to right, followed by the braille line on the top surface with buttons directly above each braille cell, then the braille keyboard above that. The keys on the keyboard are oval shaped.

There are also smaller ones that have twenty, eighteen, and even fourteen cells.

This is a picture of a fourteen cell display. Isn't it cute? The same forty cell display orientation description applies to this one, except that the cursor buttons above the braille cells, are more of a "slide up from the cell to position the cursor" kind of mechanism. The keys on the keyboard are square shaped

Each braille cell of the display has eight dots it can work with when working on a computer or mobile device. “But Jose! We all know that braille has six dots, and not eight! Are you intoxicated?” Certainly not! The last two dots of each cell on the very bottom of it, which we call “dot 7” and “dot 8,” are used for things like highlighting text on screen. It is also used as a cursor, like that little animation on your screen that moves when you type visually. We will go into a basic science lesson on how a display works.

How The Display Works and a Brief History

Each cell of the braille display has eight pins per cell. For each pin, back in the old days, (early 2000’s) there was a special crystal that lifted the pin to make a dot, and it would lower it if there was no dot. This all depended on what the internal software was trying to output to it. Now, the crystals are gone, and it is now special tiny gadgets that do the work. The philosophy is the same, though. Depending on what you were doing, the internals of the display would know what dots to raise and lower, working in conjunction with the computer’s software. Braille displays back in the day ONLY existed on specialized computers called “Notetakers.” These were special computers with what you would find on a regular PC, but the programming was modified for the blind and visually impaired. They also talked to you through speakers. Now a days, you can still find notetakers with braille displays on them, but you also can find a variety of stand-alone models of the braille display to connect to the computer or mobile device.

So How Much Is One of These There Gadgets, Anyway?

These braille displays come in a variety of prices, like a computer. However, I must warn you, they do NOT come as cheap as a computer, because of the special parts found inside them to make it work. The price depends on what kind of display you want and the amount of cells and features it has. They can range from $600 up to $8000. The 8000 dollar one is for the eighty cell models. The eighty cell displays are rarely used, since these are more for people like our web developer who would need it for programming, or if you are an accountant, and need to work with a large row of numbers. Most of the time, the twenty or forty cell models are used. If someone uses one exclusively for mobile devices, then the fourteen cell models are used. Remember, all these models work with the computer.

Characteristics Of All Displays

Braille displays all have the same standard of features. Some of them have more built-in features like notepads, clocks, and calendars, but this will cover what ALL braille displays have hardware wise. Some have aditional buttons to perform other functions on the computer or mobile device, but most braille displays will have the following specs.

Cursor Buttons

If you were to look at a braille display, you will notice that the cells are slightly raised up when it is off. They feel a little spongy to the touch. Above each cell, you will find a button. This button can be just a little square, or a springy strip button with a dot above it. This is a cursor routing button. When you are using the computer, and you are editing a document, you can press one of these cursor buttons, and it moves your cursor to that cell. For example, Let’s say you have the word, “Helllo.” Yes, I miss-spelled it on purpose for this example. This word spans seven cells of the display. The first cell is dot 6, for the capital letter indicator. Then, from there, you have “H, E, L, L, L, O.” We don’t want that extra L. So, assuming the word is at the beginning of the display, find cells 4, 5, or 6. Press that little button above one of those L’s. Preferably, either cell 5 or 6 works better here. You will notice the bottom two dots show up underneath the letter “l.” This is your cursor. From here, press “Backspace” on your keyboard to delete the extra L. Now you should have, “Hello.” This is just like dragging your mouse, but without the hit and miss of trying to find your place and hitting the mouse very hard if frustration kicks in during this time. This cursor has the ability to blink as well, which is useful if you wish to know where you are in the document. You will also notice the cursor move if you use the arrow keys on your keyboard. Speaking of keyboards, this leads to the next section!

Keyboard.

On most braille displays, above the actual cells and cursor routing buttons, you will find the braille keyboard. This keyboard is an eight key keyboard, with oval shaped keys. Some displays also make the keys square as well. From left to right, you have the following keys in this order: “Backspace,” “Dot 3,” “Dot 2,” Dot 1,” Dot 4,” “Dot 5,” “Dot 6,” and “Enter.” On most displays, Dots “2” and “5” are very slightly above the other keys, rather than being lined up like a QWERTY keyboard in a straight line. Don’t panic. These were made like that for more comfort in typing. Below these keys, you will find the traditional space bar. This bar can either be right below the row of eight keys, or in the case of these two displays pictured above, the “Space Bar” is below the braille cell area. This key, well, does what you expect it to do. It shuts down the computer! Just kidding! It inserts a space if you are editing a document and other functions, depending on the context of what you are doing.

Chorded Commands

That space bar is going to be your best friend when performing many commands to interact with a computer or mobile device, since you can control them fully using the braille keyboard of a display. You also use the “Backspace,” and “Enter” keys the same way as “Space” besides using them to delete or insert a new line. A Chorded command consists of pressing the “Space Bar,” and other keys on the keyboard. For example, on an iOS device, to get to the home screen from anywhere, and if you have a braille display connected, you press an “H Chord.” Which means, you press the “Space Bar,” while also pressing the braille combination for the letter H, (Dots 1, 2, and 5” at the same time. The term “Chord” will ONLY be used for “Space,” and not the “Backspace” and “Enter” keys. For those other two, you will see something like, “Press “Backspace” with “H.”” You can even use all three of those keys at the same time! For instance, on my iOS device, I have a braille keyboard command to launch Siri if I ever feel lazy. For this command, I have, “Backspace,” “Enter,” with an “S Chord.” In this situation, I press “Space,” along with “Dots 2, 3,” and “4,” while also pressing “Backspace” and “Enter” at the same time! Your fingers may be hurting just thinking about this kind of command, but I promise you. A blind person is used to pressing these kind of key combinations. You will see TONS more of them as you learn the use of a braille display. One last thing about the term “Chord.” This term was used back when notetakers were more popular to make it easier for teaching. Now, you will hear, “Press “Space” with “H.”” rather than hearing “Chord.” I personally like “Chord” better, because it got drilled in my mind a lot easier. (Cue elderly sounding voice here) “But then again, I have used this kind of braille device since I was in the third grade.”

Panning Buttons

“What? Panning? For Gold?” No, silly reader! We all want gold, but we cannot find it here. That’s another story for another day. Anyway, panning is used to describe “Scrolling.” You know how when you are reading, you can scroll through your text using a mouse? Well, on the braille display, you can use buttons called, “Panning Buttons.” These buttons are located on either the left and right ends of the braille cell area, or on the front side of the display on either end of it. Some of them may have the panning buttons on just one side, right above each other. Some just have one panning button on either side. For instance, to move up a line on the display, you press the panning button on the left end of the display. To move forward one line of braille, you press the right panning button. Typically, you use your pinkie fingers to control these buttons while reading. The same strategy applies if the buttons are on the front of the unit. However, instead of using your pinky fingers to control panning, you use your thumbs. You will hear them also be addressed as “Thumb Keys” if they are in this configuration. If you have a display with the panning buttons above each other on one end of the braille cell area, the bottom button pans forward, and the top button moves back. Use your pinky to control those buttons as well. These buttons are customizable if you are using your screen reader, so you can change what these do. For instance, you can reverse the buttons to where the left button moves forward, and the right button moves back through text.

Connectivity

Most braille displays have two methods of connectivity. You can use these connections at the same time as well for most of them. Not literally, but you can switch between them.

USB

You can use a USB cable with most braille displays to connect to a computer. This cable also charges the displays while using them. In this case, some displays have either Micro USB, “old Android Charger cables,” Mini USB which was the protocol before Micro, and the new USB C. The cable will come supplied with the display, so no need to worry about having to buy one prior to getting a device. You will also need to install special software drivers for the computer to recognize the display. Most displays come with all the software needed for this to work. Remember how you had to install, or get someone to help you install printer drivers for them to work? A Braille display is the same way. Some of the newer displays are plug and play, but if you are using older versions of screen readers, they may require driver installation. Plug and Play means that when you connect one to the computer, all you need to do is launch the screen reader, and it will auto-detect the display you are using. No extra drivers or alcohol required!

Bluetooth

There is also a wireless method of using a braille display. It can be useful if you want to step away from the computer or mobile device, but you still want to control it. You must pare the device in question with the display before doing so. Again, if the display requires drivers, install those first. Otherwise, you can pare without any issues. Just restart the screen reader after paring the device if using a computer. On a mobile device, after paring, no restart is required. Most displays will allow you to connect up to FIVE bluetooth devices and one USB device. You can easily switch from device to device to control each one. On a mobile device, no driver installation is required, unless you are using old phones like the Nokia ones running the old Talks screen reader.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Now we’re up to the MOST IMPORTANT part of this post. When handling a braille display, it is important to remember a couple of things when it comes to cleaning and maintenance.

  • DO NOT EAT OR DRINK IN FRONT OF A BRAILLE DISPLAY! Any crumb can be fatal if it ends up inside a braille cell, which will then require you to send it back to clean. These cleanings can cost from a few hundred dollars to full price for replacement, depending how many cells do not work. Spilling a drink will just cause even more damage, and if you are a student, your teacher will give you quite the stern talking to for that! From there, the special ED department will give the teacher another stern talking to about letting students use braille displays while eating snacks!
  • When cleaning the display to sanitize it or after removing it from storage, DO NOT USE WET RAGS OR DISINFECTANT WIPES! Make sure you squeeze the moisture out of these before cleaning. Leave the cloth or wipe just a little bit damp before cleaning, and carefully run it over the braille display and keyboard.
  • SEND BACK THE UNIT TO WHOMEVER YOU BOUGHT IT FROM FOR ANY REPAIRS! Most companies give you a warranty period which covers any accidental damage to the display. They will repair that for free, and the display will be good as new! Don’t attempt any kind of repair yourself, or you will get a void on the warranty. Plus, you will most likely be lectured by higher authority if you say, “Oh, I have a family member that repairs computers, so I figured they’d be able to repair this! It saves money for the next athletic banquet!” These displays are specially made, and only the companies you bought them from know how to fix them.

Epilogue

From here, it is all a matter of deciding which braille display you wish to buy and use. Do you want something big, medium, or small? Are you going to use it with computers only, or do you want a notepad? How much is your budget? These are some of many questions you can ask before purchasing. This post is to help you get started on what to expect when obtaining a display. If you have further questions, you can email us and we can give you more information! Happy braille reading!