My Braille Toolbox: Epilogue

The word

Building Braille: The History of Braille, and Where Design is Taking it Next

My friend and accessibility maestro Jennifer Sutton brought this article from Print Magazine to my attention yesterday, and it seemed like a fitting epilogue to my Braille Toolbox series (which starts here). People are doing more innovative and creative things with Braille than I knew or imagined!

My Braille Toolbox Part 4: What’s Next?

Well, we’ve reached the end of my small Braille toolbox (see Parts One, Two, and Three of this series, if you haven’t already), but the fun isn’t over! I still anticipate needing a few other Braille gadgets, and the inventions and innovations that are popping up everywhere in the Braille world make the future look very exciting.

What’s Next for Me?

 The next item down my Braille wishlist is an embosser—basically the Braille version of a regular printer.

A product photo of the Juliet 120 embosser, from the front.

This connects to a computer and embosses any text file in hard-copy Braille. It cuts down the time involved in making Braille, since you can type and edit on the computer with a QWERTY keyboard, make multiple copies, etc. Since my work involves a lot of comparing texts side-by-side, being able to print them out instead of switching back and forth on a Braille display will be a huge time-saver.

There are a couple of variables to consider when choosing a Braille embosser. Some only emboss on one side of the paper; others emboss both sides, staggering the lines of dots so they don’t interfere with one another. Some only do Braille text, while others specialize in tactile graphics, and some do both.

These machines tend to be expensive—from $2000 to about $7000 for personal embossers (industrial embossers can run $50,000 or more), so knowing what you want is critical.I’m very interested in trying to use tactile graphics to represent cuneiform texts, so that I can still read them in the original sign system, rather than relying on transliteration. I also anticipate a high volume of embossing, so double-sided would be very nice.

My current dream machine is the Juliet 120, from Humanware. It quickly embosses double-sided Braille and comes with tactile graphics software. Do you have a Braille embosser you love and think I should consider? Tell me about it in the comments!

What is the Future of Braille Tech?

A product photo of the new BLITAB Braille tablet.

Like everything in tech right now, there’s a lot of innovation happening in accessibility. For Braille displays, it looks like devices are going to get better, more diverse, and much cheaper in coming years. 

Humanware has created a Braille display/tablet hybrid, the BrailleNote Touch, which has a Braille display and traditional keyboard, as well as a touch screen interface that runs on Android.

A number of companies now produce multiline Braille displays, including Canute from Bristol Braille Technologies and the TACTIS100 from Tactisplay Corp.

These two are primarily for desktop use, but the race is on to produce the first Braille tablet/ebook—a standalone, full-page Braille display that is light and durable enough to be truly portable.

The first one to market will probably be BLITAB. This tablet is being developed by an international team in Austria, and it’s being intentionally designed for a worldwide user base, so it should handle multiple languages easily. The pins are raised and lowered by smart materials instead of mechanical actuators, which increases its durability and decreases its complexity and weight. It looks like BLITAB is now available for preorder, and will ship later this year!

Another company working on Braille tablets is Dot, which is already getting quite a bit of good press for their Braille smartwatch, the Dot Watch, which displays not only the time, but text messages and alerts from your phone. Once the Dot Watch ships (starting April 1), they will shift their R&D energy to developing two Braille tablets, the Dot Mini and the Dot Tab. 

There are rumors of other technologies in development, too, like rotary Braille displays that have the cells set on the edge of a rotating disc. This way, you could read continuously without even having to move your finger. 

I’m glad I chose to invest in a mature technology this time, because most of the next-generation Braille tech will need a few years to iron the kinks out, but I’m very excited about the amount of innovation and improvement that is happening.

My Braille Toolbox Part 3: The Refreshable Braille Display

(This is Part Three of a Series. Here’s Part One and Part Two)

Ok, we’re skipping a few historical developments here, but this is my beautiful new Braille display, the VarioUltra 20, by BAUM.

A photo showing the entirety of my new VarioUltra, out of its leather case and at a slanty angle. 

The current generation of Braille displays like the VarioUltra combine the functionality of two earlier pieces of technology, the Braille notetaker and the refreshable braille display. They can function as either independent PDAs or as displays for a phone or computer.

The Hardware

The display portion is a single line containing, in this case, 20 Braille cells. There is also a VarioUltra 40, with 40 cells, and other displays range from 14 to 80 cells in length.

These things are truly mechanical marvels. The tiny nylon pins that make the Braille dots are only spaced 2.2 mm apart, and they must all be able to raise and lower independently. Each of the 160 dots on this display is connected to its own lever, which is raised up and down by a crystal that expands under electrical current and contracts when it is removed. They refresh in a fraction of a second—much less than the time that it takes to move your finger from the end of the line back to the beginning. And though they be small, they must be reliable and durable enough to be read hundreds of thousands of times.

The interface is entirely tactile, and the device is simply rife with buttons to navigate menus and files, enter and edit text, and manage physical and wireless connections.

At the top of the unit, there is an eight-key keyboard that is analogous to the six-key keyboard on the Perkins Brailler. Each key corresponds to one dot. Below that is the row of  Braille cells, each of which has a small button above it which are used for cursor routing and text manipulations. On either side of the braille display are three buttons used to navigate whatever text, file, or website you are reading. The bottommost row contains a little joystick they call a NaviStick, used to navigate the operating system, four system keys, and two space bars.


In independent notetaker mode, the VarioUltra has its own OS with a suite of productivity apps: a text reader and word processor, PDF viewer, spreadsheet viewer, calculator, etc.  

I can store files on there, from notes and handouts to whole books. It’s finally going to make Braille portable for me in a real and useful way. I mean, if you wanted to take a book to the park or coffeeshop to read, what would you rather carry?

Photo of a stack of large Braille volumes, my library loan of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, next to my sleek little VarioUltra.

When it’s hooked up to an iPhone, I can use it to read my email, articles, websites, facebook, twitter, and any other accessible material that’s available. 

Since this is my first Braille display, I anticipate a steep learning curve. To be honest, i haven’t even turned it on yet. This isn’t the intuitive, easy to pick up and start using technology we’ve gotten so used to. It’s the kind of technology where you read all the documentation before you even get started, and it still takes a while to get up to speed. With the crazy week i had, I just haven’t had that kind of time. That’s what the next few days are for.

I’m excited to get to know this device. I’m excited to carry Braille with me, to be able to read and work quietly again, and to get better and faster at reading Braille because I’m using it more and using it more seriously. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

My Braille Toolbox: A Guided Trip through Braille-Writing History

A close up image of the VarioUltra 20 from the front.

My new Bluetooth Braille display finally arrived in the mail!

It has been on back order since December, and I’ve had these long weeks of waiting to think about Braille writing and how the technology has evolved over time. I have a few other Braille gadgets, and I realized my acquisitions had unintentionally imitated the course of Braille-writing technology.

So this week I am going to share a bit about the tools I have and how useful they are. I don’t have something from every stage in the development of Braille tech, but it will be enough to give you a general idea.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

The Slate and Stylus

Welcome to the nineteenth century! This simple tool was invented even before Braille. Napoleon wanted a way for his armies to communicate at night, without light or sound, so he commissioned a guy named Charles Barbier to create a writing system that could be read without any light. Barbier had the idea of using fingers to read raised dots and lines. He invented a system and the slate and stylus to write it. His system was too complicated and never caught on, but Louis Braille learned about it a few decades later, and simplified it to create the six-dot Braille system we use today.

I got my slate and stylus last August from the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. I picked it up on a whim, because I wanted practice using my newly acquired Braille and this was the cheapest and simplest way to get started.

An image of my hand holding a Braille stylus and pressing it into the back of a slate with a piece of paper inside.

It works kind of like a stencil. The slate is a hinged piece of metal that clamps onto a sheet of paper. It provides a template that ensures the exact spacing necessary to create readable Braille. To write, you have to press the stylus, a blunt awl, into the appropriate guide holes.

One dot at a time.


That’s right, backwards. Because you’re poking the dots in from the back to raise them on the front side, you have to write every line and every cell in the wrong direction, like writing in a mirror.

It takes forever.

And then you flip it over to see how many mistakes you made.

An image of my hand lifting up the front of the slate to reveal the sentence

The problem is, since Braille cells have two columns of dots, almost every character is the mirror image of another one. If you aren’t paying attention and forget to flip them, you end up with ‘i’ instead of ‘e’ or ‘z’ instead of ‘and.’ One time I was making a sheet of notes. It took me more than two hours. and when I was done it was filled with typos (Braille-os? stylos? I don’t know).

You can get a better sense of the process by using this neat Slate and Stylus Simulator I found.

The Upshot: it’s better than nothing, but barely.

Writing with Sound

I sense that there is a change happening in my writing, because there is a change in how I write. I used to write, like most people, silently. My eyes and fingers worked together to lay down words on the page.

When you compose with your eyes, you read over what you’ve written with your internal voice. You supply all of the missing elements of speech: tone, emphasis, pause, and all the other things that add texture and life to the words on the page.

When I used to write with my eyes, I would become so familiar with the way I read a piece of text in my head that I could not imagine it any other way. I never considered that those invisible auditory elements would not be immediately evident to any other reader. At least, not until I came back to a piece of writing a few days later, when I had forgotten the finer details, the shape and flow of each individual sentence. Then I would inevitably puzzle over a phrase or paragraph until I realized how I had meant it to be read. I found these pitfalls lurking in the writing of others, too—places where the emphasis or tone was important but not apparent, waiting like rocks in tall grass to trip up unsuspecting readers.

Now I write with VoiceOver. It is Apple’s main accessibility feature, which gives immediate audio feedback for every character, word and sentence that I write, and reads me paragraphs so I can remind myself of their flow and argument. It is a multi-sensory experience, since I still see the words appearing on my screen, sometimes zoomed in close enough to read them but most often not. I used to find the constant wash of letters and words distracting and intrusive, but in the few weeks since I’ve started writing this way exclusively, it has become natural and I feel adrift when it is turned off.

When VoiceOver reads every word, line, sentence, and paragraph, it supplies its own intonation, emphasis, and rhythm. Computer voices today are not the abrasive robot voices of the eighties and nineties. They are getting closer and closer to the sound of natural speech. No one would mistake them for human, but developers are focused on improving their realism and fluency in reading long passages. So the computer adds pauses, shifts its tone, and inflects words up or down based on how it interprets the context. All those choices I used to make in composing, usually without even thinking about it, are now made by the computer. The computer becomes a controlling voice in my writing, because if it reads something awkwardly, I often change the text.

Of course, I don’t always cede to the computer. Sometimes it is obviously wrong (like when it pronounces a homonym inappropriately, like “read” as red instead of reed) or its interpretation is clumsily rule-bound (like when it thinks “Mr.” is the end of a sentence). But if the computer’s reading is misleading, ambiguous, or simply awkward, I will often rewrite it. I just can’t bear to hear the voice stumble over the same passage dozens of times as I write and edit, so I alter it to accommodate the computer’s flow.

The big question is, how will this affect my writing? Will it become more stilted or robotic as I adapt to a computerized interpretation of natural language? I hope not. My hope is that the instant feedback will remind me to consider the auditory dimensions of language more carefully than I did before. VoiceOver, imperfect as it is, is an audience that is present and interactive at every stage of my writing process, letting me know what I’ve written and at least one way it can be read. If it makes a mistake, there’s a chance another reader would also have made that mistake. VoiceOver was developed by people, after all, and those people defined the interpretive choices it makes.

VoiceOver is changing my writing, but how remains to be seen. I guess I’ll just have to wait for you, my human readers, to let me know.


My Quest for the Perfect Word Processor: Act Two

Photograph of a winding path through a dark forest. This is a quest, after all.

In Act One of this epic tale, our hero had fallen on dark days. Forced away from Mellel, his comfortable word-processing home, he began to wander the land seeking new possibilities and brighter horizons.

Now we see him revisiting familiar territory. Microsoft Word for Mac 2011 is already installed on his machine, after all. But it too offers only disappointment. Hazardous to navigate and full of unmarked and unlabeled dangers, it is a VoiceOver nightmare. 

He considers other options: Pages, VoiceDream Writer. These are friendly and accessible, but nowhere near full-featured enough for a dissertation. He falls to using TextEdit—at least it works well with VoiceOver. Perhaps he will write his whole dissertation in plain text and typeset it with LaTeX. But of course this is absurd. Navigating a document as long as a dissertation in plain text would be next to impossible. Plus he would have to learn LaTeX, so…

And then at last, on the verge of despair, he finds hope. There is a new version of Microsoft Word for Mac, and it has been substantially rebuilt and reconfigured. Word has always had features galore, of course, and is capable of handling large projects like books and dissertations. In the new 2016 version, the development team has increased VoiceOver compatibility and improved support for Hebrew (as long as the Hebrew keyboard is used). 

Almost all of the buttons, tabs, and menus are clearly labeled for VoiceOver, and navigating the interface is relatively easy. Setting VoiceOver Hotspots for the ribbon and main text pane makes it even more painless. The only problem with this is that the Hotspots for the ribbon are document-specific, so if you have two documents open at the same time, you have to make sure you go to the correct ribbon. 

Navigating long documents can also be cumbersome. You can navigate by page or line, but it would be very useful to be able to navigate within your document structure. The VoiceOver rotor could come in handy here, connecting the headings menu to document headings and allowing users to skip back and forth that way.

The biggest bug in Word for Mac 2016 comes when documents get long and cover multiple pages. If you make changes to early pages in the document that affect later pages, VoiceOver can get confused about what it should be reading . When you use the “Read Line” or “Read Paragraph” commands, it will read the wrong line or paragraph, or start or stop too early. When this happens, closing and reopening the document solves the problem, It is not insurmountable, but it does get very tedious. 

Track Changes and Comments—two critical tools in academic work—are also difficult to use, but these are acknowledged issues that Word is working to improve.

So our hero takes up this tool, imperfect though it is, and sets his hand to the work. But his vigilance remains constant, and from afar he hears rumours of a new kind of tool: a powerful writing suite with deep VoiceOver compatibility. Tune in next time, brave readers, as our hero encounters…the Scrivener.


(This  epic post reviewed MS Word for Mac 2016 Version 15.24. Any subsequent  improvements to accessibility in later versions are not covered)

My Quest for the Perfect Word Processor: Act One

An image of a big, unlabeled red button.

“Button. You are currently on a button. To click this button, press Control-Option-Space.”

Uh oh. This is the sound of VoiceOver non-compliance, and the first time I heard it, my heart sank. I am still new at VoiceOver, but I was even newer then, just learning basic commands and navigation skills. I was testing the various apps I use on a regular basis, experimenting to see how I would use them when I could no longer use my sight. VoiceOver is the main accessibility feature on Mac—it identifies objects and reads text on the screen, and allows the user to control everything with the keyboard and trackpad. So what is the problem? It’s helpful to know you’re on a button, right? It is, but it would also be nice to know what the button does. Exploring sloppy apps like this is like breaking into a super-villain’s secret lair. There are buttons—oh so many buttons—but none of them are labelled. Does this button open a trap door to the dungeons, or order minions to bring coffee? Does this button save my file, or delete it?

What that button above should have said was something like “Save button. Save. You are currently on a button. To click this button, press Control-Option-Space.” See? Proper labelling makes everything so much clearer.

The problem app in this case—the app that made my heart sink—was Mellel, my favorite word processor. It is the word processor of choice in my field because it was developed by an Israeli team and handles right-to-left languages (Hebrew, Aramaic) without a hitch. It also includes a robust set of options for formatting, structuring, and managing citations in long documents like academic papers and dissertations. In short, it was the perfect tool while I had sight.

But the developers had not considered blind users and had not put in the effort to make Mellel VoiceOver compatible by labelling buttons and ensuring that the menus and palettes were navigable. It would not even read the text I had written back to me.  Now I came face-to-face with the realization that I couldn’t use this familiar tool to write my dissertation. Worse, everything I’d written for the last eight years was inaccessible.

For now, I could muddle through. I can still see enough to spot read and navigate the on-screen geography of buttons and banners, can zoom in to read the smaller text. But this is getting harder, and it certainly won’t last forever, I need a word processor that will work when I can no longer see at all. So I need a word processor that is

  • VoiceOver Compatible
  • Robust enough to handle a dissertation-sized project
  • Capable of dealing with all the languages I use

May be a tall order. We’ll see. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some of my experiments and experiences with other word processors. As it turns out, I’ve just found one that I think is going to work. Stay tuned for my review, and in the meantime, feel free to share with me any recommendations for accessible word processors that have worked for you!