Braille Displays

This week we talked about refreshable braille displays, their limitations and how they enhance independence.

May 2, 2019

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Audio Transcript


Embracing Braille: Braille Display

Presented by Vileen Shah

May 2, 2019

Vileen Shah: Braille display, its role in enhancing independence. Of course, for the blind and visually-impaired people it has given ... I have not put those words, and its limitations. In order to do this presentation on this topic today, I would first like to divide this topic into a few segments. Number one, I will tell what a braille display is. Number two, I will tell how it works, and then number three of course, how it helps you enhance your independence, and number four, what are its limitations?

To begin with, I will try to simplify this as much as I can. To begin with, a braille display is a device connected to your computer to help you read in braille what is on the screen. Now, that sounds something amazing. Wow, you can read something on the screen in braille, you know? Those who are so used to using the speech software, screen readers, are so happy that they can do it and not ... There is also another option available that you all do not know. Many, some of you do not know, that another option is you can read the information in braille. You don't have to listen to that.

Now, that is a great technology and interestingly enough, I checked on the website quite a bit and I did not get enough information on what I wanted, but yes, the first braille display was developed in 1970, I think even before the screen reader was developed. And, but it was not made commercial at that time. However, in 1982 the first commercial production of braille display started. So let's just understand more what this braille display is. Basically, it is a hardware piece on which there is a panel that you can feel, and the panel contains certain things. It's called round-tipped pins, which means the top part, the tip, is round, and I'm pretty sure you all understand why. Because we want to have the dots, and dots are round.

So it is made in such a way that all the pins to begin with are down on the panel, but as you move your cursor, whatever you are using, keyboard or whatever, mouse, mostly keyboard. I cannot use mouse. As you move your cursor, the dots are embossed or raised on the panel. So for instance, let's say embracing braille. If the screen shows embracing braille on the touch pad, on the panel of the display, you can read in braille, E-M-B-R-A-C-I-N-G B-R-A-I-L-L-E, with a space and everything.

So it is a kind of braille monitor. What the seeing people can see on the monitor, you can feel on the braille display. That is a great idea, great technology, great device to help blind and visually-impaired people to read in braille what is on the screen. I'll just read one piece of information that I mean I found on the website and it says, "A refreshable braille display." Now, that's a common word, call it refreshable braille display. I have yet to find out the exact difference, if at all there is any, between the refreshable braille display or display. I think it's a common term used, but anyway.

"A refreshable braille display consisting of row of electronic mechanical character cells, each of which can raise or lower a combination of eight round-tipped pins." All right, that's a technically-written sentence. I will break it down into pieces so that you know. So there are two rows of four pins each, and once again the pins are round-tipped. The pins are round at the top, and these thin pins can be raised or can be lowered. Raised in the sense, it raises the number of dots that apply to a braille sign or a braille letter. I said sign because sometimes one braille symbol represents the whole word or a part of the word in contracted braille.

So it embosses on the display panel the dots that are necessary, and keeps the other dots down that you don't have to feel. But as you move, let's say embracing braille group. Let's say now we are moving to the word “group.” For any reason if the word group goes to the next line, then the next line will be group and the word embracing braille will disappear. Remember, this braille monitor or braille display can read only more or less approximately 40 cells per line. It cannot read the entire monitor. It cannot read the whole screen. It will need to read it piece by piece, line by line.

Because the cost of making this braille display so high, we will cover that a little later though, it's not possible to have so many cells available. And therefore, to reduce the cost many braille displays have only 10 cells in each line, or sometimes 20 and sometimes 40, and of course there are some that have 64 or 80. But braille displays are generally known by the number of cells they have, so if you say Focus 40, that's one of the names of the braille display, Focus 40, that means this display can hold 40 cells in one line.

So the braille display again is like a monitor, and it has what they call electromechanical character cells. For these, each cell consists of two rows with four pins each. Now, I'll explain why four pins. Actually it should have three pins, because that's how a braille cell is made, three dots on the left and three dots on the right. Accordingly, you can make the characters or letters or signs or symbols. But most displays use what they call eight-dot braille. Now, this is something new for some of you, and eight-dot braille means that they are the same. All your letters and symbols and contractions are the same.

What they do by having one dot at the bottom of dot number three, and having one more dot at the bottom of dot number six, they use this system, extra two-dot system, to show a capital letter or underline. So for instance, braille. If B needs to be capitalized, remember not all the time, and I'm not going to teach you grammar here, of course, but suppose B needs to be capitalized. On the braille display, you will see an extra dot at the bottom of dot number three, showing that this letter B is capital.

If it is underlined, you will see dots number seven and eight, a straight row of dots seven and eight, when you read braille. It's a little complicated, and I don't think you should worry about that now. If you're trying to understand what a braille display is, then just focus on that and don't worry about the eight-dot braille. I'll just add my personal note. I am not happy with that eight-dot braille. I am not able to read braille well because there are extra dots at the bottom every time, particularly when there is an underline, and the whole line of dots seven, eight, straight line appears on the braille display, making it difficult for my fingertip to read actual braille.

So that's another issue, and going back to that, I mentioned that there are different braille displays available, different sizes, different prices. A few braille displays that are known to the people are made by HumanWare or Freedom Scientific, or there are other companies that are making. An important developmental addition to the [inaudible 00:12:29] braille display is that down the road, some people developed braille displays to use as a note taker. With these, you can use your six keys to write braille and of course that braille, you can make notes using that.

So initially, a braille display was just a reading device connected with the computer to help you read the screen. But later on, it was combined with the writing device. There are quite a few braille displays that you can use for reading and writing braille, and you may learn to write braille using the six-key option. That's how the six keys are there on the braille display. So there is a lot, of course, I may want to say, and I do not know so much about all braille displays. I will try my best to answer questions, but this is how a braille display works.

So I'm going to actually read from the braille display what I found on the website. Let me see if I can go there, and then we will talk about how it enhances independence and how it limits our access. That's a little difficult, because when I went to Zoom platform and I had one of the webpage open, that has been now covered so it doesn't help. But anyway, I wanted to give you a little demonstration how I can read using the braille display, and then I wanted to play using JAWS. I do not think it is possible now. We are limited by the technology, but okay.

So, I hope you got some idea how a braille display works. I'm particularly concerned because many of you may not have seen it, and some of you may not have heard about it, but now you did so let's move on. How it enhances your independence. Well, very attractive point, very impressive thing, that it allows you to read what's on the computer monitor. What else you want? However, with this limitation due to the lack of sight is that we are not able to read the computer screen. The braille display makes it possible.

So certainly, it enhances your independence. Also, sometimes when a computer reads and we are not able to ... Even if we are using JAWS or a screen reader and certain words are difficult to understand, or certain words are obviously confusing. In that case, if we can feel braille on the braille display, then we can be sure of the words. Now when I was reading this, there's a product called Brailliant. Instead of brilliant, it's Brailliant, produced by HumanWare. It says Brailliant BI 14. BI did not make sense to me, but I moved my fingers on my braille display that Hadley has given me, and BI was B-I and that's kind of identity for this Brailliant that HumanWare produces.

So yes, so those are for those, when you cannot understand a word your screen reader says, you can check on the braille this way and see and confirm what that word is. The braille display is particularly more effective, helpful and useful for people who are deaf, who have no ability to listen to the screen readers, but they can still use the computer by using the braille display. That is a great device. Okay, all right, so that's so much about enhancing independence. There are more things, but I'm trying to now be more brief because ... I think I will continue, anyway.

Its limitations; first of all, when you read using a braille display, it is slow. It is much slower than using a screen reader. A screen reader, you can listen to that as fast as you can. If you are able to understand, you can. But with braille, you can read in braille only whatever speed you have, and that also doesn't work because for each line, the cursor on the braille display is constantly going to the next line, going to the next line reading, going to the next line. And then as you all know, it's always so much quicker, particularly when you are on the website. It is so much quicker on the screen, and it's so difficult to skip using the braille display. Not that you cannot, but you have to [inaudible 00:19:09] the cursor, and in doing so sometimes you even miss the important information in between the [inaudible 00:19:15].

So [inaudible 00:19:21] is particularly a hurdle and I'm not sure how to overcome that. That is another limitation. And one of the most guiding limitations is the price. Initially when these braille displays were out, a 40-cell braille display would cost you only $6,000. I say only because I think those who produced did not realize that our blind and visually-impaired friends, most of them do not have this kind of money. According to my statistics that I found somewhere, nearly 70% of the blind and visually-impaired people in this country, in the United States, are unemployed.

When you're either on Social Security or pension or some family and friend support, obviously $6,000 for a 40-cell display is a big price. And for an 80-cell display, it was $12,000. I could not understand, by using the same hardware, same technology, a 40-cell is $6,000, 80-cell cannot be double because the hardware piece is the same. Maybe $9,000, but $12,000 was like, I don't have a good word. Among my friends, I used to call it rip-off. I'm not sure publicly I should say such words. Sorry, it was too much a price.

The prices have been slashed down recently because of the development of other technology, and because of the affordability being such a huge issue. So now I think for instance the unit that HumanWare produces, I'm not advertising anybody, but I saw the price $2,995. $3,000 for me is not affordable even though I'm doing two jobs. But for those who are unemployed, $3,000 is a big amount. There could be some foundations, organizations, some funding options that people can find and find help from those foundations, but otherwise it's unaffordable. Affordability is more an issue than usability. Yes, it's usable, but it's not affordable. And if it enhances my independence but it is not affordable, then I think I don't want. I'm okay with the independence that I have, that I can afford. I cannot think of that.

Irene Hampton: Irene.

Vileen Shah: Irene, yes. Thank you. Welcome, Irene. You are joining first time, right?

Irene Hampton: Correct.

Vileen Shah: Okay, thank you. Welcome, Irene. Irene, you are joining first time. Would you like to say a few words about yourself, what brings you?

Irene Hampton: Beg your pardon? I thought that was me making the noise. It's Irene Hampton. Thank you very much for going forward with information on braille display. I am currently running a Focus 40 braille display. I've been reading braille for 40 years, and I'm attempting to create a Spanish language in braille display. It's just a work in progress, but I'm doing grade two English braille. The really good news, Debbie just told me there is only grade one Spanish braille. I'm looking forward to reading it on my braille display. Thank you.

Vileen Shah: Thank you. Thank you for telling, and good luck with your new endeavor. You will definitely make it available for Spanish-speaking people. That's great. Currently, braille displays can read grade one for uncontracted braille and for less contracted braille, but sometimes they call it 1.5, or one-and-a-half grade, which means some contraction cells there and some not. As far as my experience goes, all braille displays do not have a clear concept of contracted braille. They are somewhat mixed up, so there are limitations there. Okay, wonderful. Who else is joining first time? I did hear someone.

Jim Mack: Jim.

Vileen Shah: Yes?

Jim Mack: Yeah, this is Jim Mack.

Vileen Shah: Yes, Jim Mack. Would you please tell a little bit about yourself?

Jim Mack: Yeah, I'm actually new to braille. I have RP, so a slow progression and I learned braille through Hadley, which was amazing. I'm running a Focus 40 as well, but I also run a Mac with voiceover, so I'm running that as well as a PC with JAWS, so I'm kind of stuck in the middle of a lot of things. I'm trying to use my display, and I'm also taking the transcription course to be a transcriber through Library of Congress.

Vileen Shah: Great, great. Good luck, and I wouldn't say you are stuck. I would say you are struggling hard to put it all together. You are trying your best to put one plus one two and make two plus two four, and you will make it.

Jim Mack: Right.

Vileen Shah: Okay, next one? Who is first time, yes? Okay, now let's keep this floor open for the questions. And once again, when somebody asks a question and anybody else from you knows the answer, please speak up and say your views, say your answer. I will try my best as well, but always, I'm not perfect. I do not know everything in the world. I probably know quite a bit, but not all. Okay, wonderful. We have a tremendously nice group here. I'm so happy, and carry on. Please ask your question, and you do not have to raise your hand. Just speak up. Raise your voice.

Michelle Boyd: Dr. Shah, this is Michelle. My question would be on braille display, does it describe photos or images, graphics?

Vileen Shah: Great, okay, and always say over.

Michelle Boyd: Over.

Vileen Shah: Okay, that's fine. Of course, yours was obviously over but I think we just have that practice out there for everything. It's again similar to screen reader in the sense that when there is a photo, a screen reader says graphic. So the braille display, that's a good question and really you have given me the homework to do. I do not know what it says, but one reason is that I do not use the braille display a lot. I do have it, but I use it only when I don't understand a word that JAWS speaks, so that's a good question but certainly it must be showing something in braille, or maybe you can read the word graphic, I'm guessing. I do not know. That's very likely. Most of the braille displays, the software is based on the screen reader similar to that. So the chances are, whatever your screen reader speaks, the braille display displays. Okay, next question? Over.

Darrin: This is Darrin.

Vileen Shah: Yes, Darrin.

Darrin: And just to kind of add to that too is that, think about it this way is that whatever text is on the screen is what your braille display will show. If you go over, if you move the focus on over to an image, as long as that image has been tagged with information and a description, then yes, you will be told what that image is. Otherwise it will say box, or something to that effect. Over.

Vileen Shah: Great, thank you. And Darrin reminds me two things before we move on. I will definitely take everybody's question as best as I can. One thing, that presentation that Darrin made on braille pen, that is also a kind of braille display. Am I right, Darrin? Braille pen is also a form of braille display device.

Darrin: It is. It is.

Vileen Shah: It is.

Darrin: It's a smaller one. It's a 12-cell display as opposed to the 40 that you have, so it has 12 individual cells that you can pan through the braille to be able to read it. And then the other thing is too, is to think about it this way, is that you can use a lot of them today as a note-taker as a separate item, almost like a laptop. Those are the ones that are really very expensive, like $6,000. But, you could also get into a much, much less costly one with dual limitations that will allow you then to connect to your iPhone or to what have you. So it depends what you want to actually do with it, what you want to be able to use it, where you decide what to buy. Over.

Vileen Shah: Perfect, perfect. You're such a good resource, and as I said, Darrin reminded me of one thing, and then I had another thing to sure so please hold on to your questions. But when the time comes, I actually wanted to add, but I forgot at that time, last month ... I'm making it a little personal, but it's not too personal. Last month, my daughters, two of them I have. I have two daughters. Two daughters, they gave me smart watch as a birthday gift. That is a braille watch, and that has four cells. It tells time, and it also reads messages, text messages. So that is also a kind of braille display. It's produced by the company called Dot, D-O-T, and it's produced in South Korea.

That was so interesting. I was so excited to have this precious smart braille watch. It also works to read the text messages, perfect. All right.

Michelle Boyd: Thank you.

Vileen Shah: Question, yeah, awesome.

Kadir: Yes, this is Kadir. I have a question.

Vileen Shah: Yes, Kadir.

Kadir: Unfortunately, I missed Darrin's presentation on the braille pen. Is there any way I can get a copy of the recording, or Darrin, could he send me an email and I could communicate with him directly and find out more about it?

Vileen Shah: I would say first you may want to go to our website and listen to the recording. It's available, and we have also posted a handout that Darrin gave us that explains what braille pen is, so you may want to do that first. If you do not succeed, then you may contact me, or then if need be I'll also let you contact Darrin if that works for you and him both, okay? But let's see. I mean, let's go step by step, so why don't you try reading the information on the website? The discussion-

Kadir: Okay, I went to the website.

Vileen Shah: Yeah?

Kadir: I'm sorry, go ahead.

Vileen Shah: No, I was saying that when you go to the Hadley website, find ... Now put the search word braille discussion group, and under that heading you should find some links that should say the type of the presentation, braille pen or whatever. It also gives you the date, and this was done on March 18th, right, Darrin? Do you remember the date?

Darrin: No, I think that's about close. I was just looking to see. I'm in the actual Hadley space that talks about the discussion group braille, and there appears to be, you could listen to the audio and then there's a transcript as well. Over.

Vileen Shah: Mm-hmm (affirmative), okay, so you are looking at the website and telling us, yes?

Darrin: Correct.

Kadir: Okay, I'm looking at ... All right, thank you. I'm looking at the website myself and I on the page discussion groups, and I've scrolled down to embracing braille. The only thing I see is a link for tuning to today's presentation. I'm missing something here.

Darrin: Nope, click on that button. Click on the tune in button, and then you'll see it.

Kadir: Okay, thank you.

Vileen Shah: So two links, okay? Good question there.

Darrin: Over.

Vileen Shah: And everybody, anybody else who is curious to know more, try that information given in the link and then get back to us. You know, we are here to keep improving ourselves, our presentations and our website and availability of information. That can be done only by your positive input, so keep it up. Questions?

Cyrille: Hi, this is Cyrille and I have a question.

Vileen Shah: Yes, Cyrille.

Cyrille: At what level of braille skills does a person need to use a braille display? Over.

Vileen Shah: Great question, yes. I would say you need to know contracted braille. You should be proficient in reading braille, not excellent, but at least minimum. But only after you learn contracted braille. Are there any displays showing uncontracted braille? Of course. The displays also have options, if you want to read uncontracted braille, which is also called grade one in most countries of the world other than the United States, so grade one or uncontracted braille, you have that option. And yes, if you are able to read uncontracted braille, then the display will work for you. But you should be able to read braille, that's the bottom line. Okay? Over. I'm learning, over. Next question? Okay.

Cyrille: Okay, wait. I have another question.

Vileen Shah: Yes, please. Cyrille?

Cyrille: Yes, yes.

Vileen Shah: Yes, go ahead.

Cyrille: What do you think is the size of braille display? I don't know what it looks like, also.

Vileen Shah: Are you saying you want to ... What does the braille display look like?

Cyrille: Or I mean, just the size. How big is it? Is it ...?

Vileen Shah: Oh, okay. There are different sizes of braille display. There used to be a braille display the size of a tape recorder. It looks almost like a tape recorder. But then they reduced the size. Currently, I have one braille display here which is like approximately two or three and a half inches wide and approximately maybe one and a half feet long, so it's like a strip, like 18 by two. So if you can imagine, 18 by maybe two or three, or two and a half, something like. I don't have the exact measurements, but that should give you the idea. They have definitely worked on reducing the size of braille displays. I think I understood your question correctly. Okay, over. Any question about braille display?

Alex: Hello, Vileen?

Vileen Shah: Yes.

Alex: This is Alex. Question-

Vileen Shah: Alex?

Alex: Yes.

Vileen Shah: Oh, are you joining first time?

Alex: Yes, this is my first time.

Vileen Shah: Oh, welcome, welcome. What's your last name?

Alex: Marino.

Vileen Shah: Okay, great. Wonderful, wonderful. Would you like to say a few words about yourself and then ask a question, if you don't mind?

Alex: Oh, okay. I actually have you as my instructor [inaudible 00:46:48].

Vileen Shah: Yeah, I kind of remember the name but I wasn't sure. Okay, uh-huh (affirmative).

Alex: Yeah, and I live here in California, so my question is that, what are the low-costing braille displays that you [inaudible 00:47:07]?

Vileen Shah: There are several. The lowest I heard is the braille pen, which is $995, almost $1,000. But then as Darrin explained to you, the limitations are it only has 12 cells. So the lower you go, like the watch I mentioned, smart watch, only four cells, they are $400. So it's like almost a cell, $100, so the lower you go, you get a smaller one and then it's not so helpful. You need at least a 40-cell line braille display if you want to read the monitor or the screen.

Or, one thing I forgot to mention. There are several people who have been working on this, and one of them has it's called Holy Braille Project in the University of Michigan. They have prepared a full-page braille display that can read an entire page, which means 40 cells and 25 lines. That would be great, but it's not been yet commercial, but it may come out hopefully. If that device comes out, then you can read most of the print books like regular books. You can attach it, and if you have the book on the computer, then you can read it by yourself. That would be great.

Also, there are people who have been working on developing the full-screen braille display, which means it can read the monitor, the screen fully, and not one, or half line or line by line, but entire screen. I don't know how far that will be successful, but they're working on that. So engineers are busy developing more devices, also making them more affordable. When you asked me this question, more information comes to my mind that Orbit 20 is the product by APH, American Printing House for the Blind, and very likely that it will be made available to all people, at least people in the United States, by NLS, that is National Library Service for the blind and for the physically handicapped people, NLS.

When they embark upon this project and will ship the Orbit 20 to everybody, then many people have access to braille display and read computer information in braille, so as they are doing now, they are shipping the DPB machine for every user. They will be shipping the Orbit braille 20, a braille display for everybody. That's the plan. We do not know how long it may take, but that may at least open up new doors for many people who cannot afford to buy a braille display. Does that help? Over.

Irene: Comment, Irene.

Vileen Shah: Yes, Irene?

Irene: We're chasing braille displays all the time, and the one that you talked about is the Orbit. It is about $500. There's also another one out of India, and it is about $700. They both have 20 cells. There's another one ... Orbit is out of the University of Bristol. There's a development group there, and they have also developed the full-page, it's called Canute, and it is not yet commercially available.

Vileen Shah: Yes, I knew this.

Irene: And there's also the Focus 14, so for people that are just trying to take down notes or are just first time in the market for a braille display, often these shorter-line braille displays will be of value in like taking down phone numbers or notes, because the Orbit is about the size ... It's about four inches by three inches, so it is a very usable piece of equipment with your smart phone. So all those are coming on the market, and as you say it's going to take some time to make it. Oh, and the full-page braille display, I wanted to comment on that. The people that are musicians, that is going to be absolutely fabulous to have braille music, because you understand how braille music is set out on the page. A braille display could be able to do that. A refreshable braille display that could be able to do that is going to be a real asset for musicians. Thank you.

Vileen Shah: Great, great. You are such a good resource. Thank you so much, and that's one of our goals, that everybody should share the information you have. As I said, I may not know everything, so that's very helpful. All right, so we have reached the end of the session time now, according to my watch, or the computer says 12:32 central time. So if you still have questions, save them to ask on the last Thursday of this month. Next week, we are going to talk about Brailler, and what's the title? Yeah, Braille writer usability and affordability. How useful it is, and how much affordable it is?

So we'll be talking about the braille writer, and I'll see you all again. Thank you so much for joining. I would like to thank each and everybody, and I'll see you all next Thursday. I wish you a good week ahead and a good weekend. Bye now.