Plug and Play Braille Display? Not Today, But Soon They Say

A person's hands rest on a Braille display in front of a computer.

Plug and Play Braille Display? Not Today, But Soon They Say

Last year, Karl Belanger and I reviewed the state of Braille support across a number of different screen reader and operating system combinations.

One of the biggest difficulties we encountered had to do with the installation and stability of Braille display drivers. Another difficulty was having to locate drivers when a device was heavily optimized for a specific screen reader or operating system, but we wanted to use it with a different piece of screen access software.

In other words, one of the hardest things about using Braille displays is just setting the silly things up in the first place.

Fortunately, the USB Implementers Forum has been working on a solution to this tricky problem. The group, which includes Microsoft, Apple, and Google, announced on May 31 that they have created a standard for a Human Interface Device (HID) compliant Braille display driver.

Here’s what that means when we strip away the “Geek-Speak.”

The USB Implementers Forum recognized that connecting and using Braille displays had been a pain point for a long time, so they decided to simplify that process by creating a set of rules to help Braille displays and computers speak to one another.

Think of drivers as very simple, literal-minded translators. They pass messages back and forth between your computer’s operating system and its components. These components can be things like speakers, keyboards, monitors, hard drives, and yes, Braille displays.

At present, components like keyboards and monitors speak a common language, so they can easily tell one common driver what they need to do, and that driver can relay the message to your computer. These devices might still have unique drivers that allow for special features, but by tapping into one common driver, the user can just plug in their device and start using it - no muss, no fuss. It is not that way with Braille displays.

Right now, every Braille display driver is written by the manufacturer of the Braille display. The manufacturer knows the language of their machine very, very well, but may not be as good at figuring out how to convey its messages to an operating system. This is why Braille displays can be so frustrating to install and keep running, and that is also where the new HID standard comes in.

HID-compliant Braille displays will learn to speak the language of a “master translator” who knows how to convey messages very clearly back to the computer. HID-compliant devices are already in wide use in computing, and Braille displays would benefit greatly by working within this standard.

Whether or not we will see the standard take hold with Braille display creators remains to be seen, but I fervently hope that it does. If manufacturers work with the USB Implementers Forum to make the standard part of their business practices, we have a happy future to look forward to where we can just walk up to any computer, plug in our displays, and get started.