The State of Refreshable Braille Support — Summer 2017

Posted by Amy Mason | 08/28/2017 | Access Technology
Close up of hands on a Braille display

Refreshable Braille displays are undergoing a renaissance. New devices with many different form factors, price points, and features are either on the market, or on their way. Therefore, the access technology team knew it was time for a review — not of the devices themselves, but of their support across different combinations of screen readers and operating systems, because a Braille display is only as good as the software driving it.

The majority of this data was collected in February 2017 for CSUN, and completed prior to the Access Technology Seminar day at this year’s national convention. The operating system and screen access software combinations that we examined are as follows:

  • Windows and JAWSA student uses a Braille display.
  • Windows and NVDA
  • Mac OSX with VoiceOver
  • iOS with VoiceOver
  • Chrome and ChromeVox
  • Android and BrailleBack

We learned a ton. Here are the biggest takeaways:

  • JAWS is one of the most customizable Braille experiences, and one of the most complete. It’s possible to run a Windows computer almost entirely, using just the Braille display with output tailored to your own skill levels and preferences; but getting it set up won’t be the easiest part of your day.
  • NVDA is super simple to get started with Braille, but presently suffers from the inability to use contracted Braille for input.
  • Mac OSX has the ability to connect and use multiple Braille displays which makes for some fascinating classroom opportunities, but still requires the QWERTY keyboard to complete most commands that are not directly related to VoiceOver.
  • iOS was our top performer. The ability to use the device, almost entirely from the Braille display, coupled with a largely consistent interface made it a natural standout. The only noteworthy flaw in the current implementation (which is shared by the Mac) is that quirks in translation can make the Braille experience quite difficult for less proficient users.
  • ChromeVox is the new kid on the block, and it shows. Braille support is fine for reading on the web, but text editing and more skilled tasks are still out of reach. Even so, there is true delight to be derived from plugging in a Braille display and suddenly receiving both speech and Braille, no additional work required.
  • At time of testing, Android BrailleBack had not been updated for a long time. Basics like word wrap and contracted Braille input were missing, and it was one of the least consistent and complete implementations we saw. On the up side, connectivity was rock solid. Connect a Braille display once, and every time the display and Android device are in range, it’s like they were never apart.

Of course, the pace of technology is faster than most of us can keep up with for long, and this blog post represents a snapshot in time. Over the coming weeks and months, we expect to see major shakeups in the following areas:

  • We did not detail the Braille support in Narrator on the Windows 10 Creator’s update in the initial review, as it was not officially released during our original testing, but it is available to try and play with for those running this version of the OS. The Braille on this platform is still quite early in its implementation, but promises to be an exciting package to watch in the coming months.
    • Be aware that if you install Braille support for Narrator, it is using its own set of drivers to run the Braille display interface, and this may cause you to lose Braille support in other supported screen readers. You may have to disable this driver to return to using Braille with JAWS or NVDA after working with Narrator.
    • Although it is early, it is exciting to think that with the inclusion of Narrator, all major operating systems, for the first time that the team is aware of, offers Braille support natively, without the installation of third party screen reading software!
    • Finally, there is more exciting news to come. Microsoft plans to significantly improve keyboard input from the Braille display, including modifiers and other special key commands in the Fall Creator’s Update.
  • NVDA 17.3 is expected to include contracted Braille input.
  • BrailleBack on Android is getting an update!
    • Google is publicly beta testing word wrap, and contracted Braille input.
  • At the World Wide Developer Conference, Apple announced major improvements to Braille in iOS 11, including:
    • Improved translation and Braille input
    • Custom keymapping for your Braille display (I’d like to use this key to do this thing)
    • Braille video captions.

For lots more “Brailley” goodness, please download the PowerPoint and spreadsheet documents which are attached to this blog post. In these documents you can review our detailed findings, and learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each major operating system’s Braille support today.

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