Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Going Dotty: Refreshable Braille on iOS Devices:

I never really appreciated what a gift to organized thought that learning to read Braille was while receiving my own education. Braille was always bulky and heavy. The army surplus backpack I carried through the halls earned me the nickname of Fifty. People thought that it either had fifty things in it or else it weighed fifty pounds. If they were too close behind me while I turned a corner in the hallways of my school, they were liable to get crushed up against a wall. I doubt any of them suspected that the Braille volumes which added most of the weight to that pack were mere fractions of the text books and novels they could easily carry whole under an arm or in a pocket. In early grade school, the class of blind students I was in made use of a copy of the "American Vest Pocket Dictionary". It was comprised of seven thick volumes despite the pages being double-sided. Each volume was thicker than a phone book and the whole dictionary completely filled a long shelf stretching across a wall. For years, I thought the title was someone's idea of a joke. Eventually, on a pure whim, I asked to feel a dictionary carried by one of my sighted classmates. You couldn't quite stick it casually inside a pocket, but it was light and easily carried in hand. For the first time in my memory, I was brought up against the reality of what a profound and massive difference having eye sight could actually make in one's life.

There's also the cost of producing Braille to consider. I walked around grade school with a solid metal contraption somewhat like a typewriter. It was a Purkin's Braille writer which weighed around fifteen pounds and cost at least fifteen hundred dollars. Braille embossers designed for mass production are even more expensive. This has drastically restricted what is made available for blind people to read. The paperback book you can buy for under $10 would cost hundreds to produce in Braille. Until audio and Ebooks recently hit their stride, I've been quite restricted in my reading choices compared to a person who had eye sight.

I'm part of a generation who has learned Braille naturally as part of my school experience while there was really no other credible alternative. However, we have now been liberated from the cost, bulk and weight of Braille by the advent of synthetic speech and more widespread accessibility to mainstream Ebooks and computing. In everyday life, now that I know how to read, I haven't felt the need to constantly use Braille. Quite the opposite in fact. While reading for entertainment and even when referring to books as references, speech output has proved more than sufficient and ever so convenient.

While I can fully appreciate why one might think Braille was no longer needed, I would contend that mastering the art of reading is essential to everyone's education be that print or Braille. If sighted parents faced the prospect of their children not being tought to read and write due to a lack of resources, they'd be horrified and never stand for it. Parents of blind children should feel no qualms about insisting on Braille literacy. The many lessons I learned while gaining literacy have served me well in countless ways. Like riding a bicycle, literacy is one of those things you never forget even if you don't read Braille beyond signs and labels for years. The lessons it teaches about proper use of punctuation, sentence structure and other aspects of writing have stayed with me. As a result, I have been able to use my writing and language skills to help others and express my thoughts clearly and with confidence.

I was never a particularly fast Braille reader and don't feel I've lost what speed I achieved. The same applies to writing. I'm far faster on a QWERTY keyboard than I ever was on a Braille one. In most circumstances, text-to-speech access has proved far supperior in terms of portability and actual access to books. Other than my spelling having deteriorated over the years, I don't feel that the absence of Braille has done me much harm. And yet, I'm profoundly thankful that I was taught Braille reading and writing. The lack of actual literacy would have had a strongly negative impact on my quality of life. Now that you have and idea where I sit in the great Braille debate, lets continue.

Who would have thought that a device with a smooth surface might prove to be an amazing conduit for Braille? Apparently, Apple did. Right from the start when VoiceOver first appeared, there has been support for Braille displays. I never thought much about it when I got my iPHONE4. It was so intuitive and easy to use speech and the capabilities of the platform made learning how to use Braille on it far less attractive than it would be currently. Before embarking on writing this guide, I hadn't given the implications a whole lot of thought. As I've taken the time to dig into what iOS offers in terms of Braille support, the implications become very apparent.

You may wonder why I've chosen to give the Braille experience its own somewhat lengthy section. I have several reasons for doing this. First of all, if people don't intend to use Braille displays, all of the extra commands are out of their way. Those who wish to learn how to use refreshable Braille will find all they need in this section which isn't covered elsewhere. Experiencing iOS through a refreshable Braille display is markedly different than via the touchscreen and speech output. Rather than a whole screen surface which can be explored with a finger plus immediate speech feedback, using a Braille display may change your approach. You can explore the screen in a similar way with one hand operating the iOS device and another on the Braille display. Alternatively, you could operate entirely from the Braille display using all the key commands to navigate. That will feel very different and be more similar to using a traditional screen reader. People who struggle with using a touchscreen may well find this mode of operation to be preferable. In either case, you will find that the Brailledisplay gives you a window in the form of a line of characters whose length depends on that of your display. The position in exact focus, such as the current character in a document being written, is shown by two dots on the bottom of the cell which tick up and down repeatedly.

Another advantage to separating the Braille-specific information in this way is that people can more easily grasp how much support there is and how integral Braille can be if you wish or need it to. Those who might think to presume that Apple has paid mere lip service to Braille support do Apple and themselves a serious injustice. There's a whole lot of ground to cover, so lets begin connecting the dots.

Over time, Apple has gone to considerable lengths to support the use of refreshable Braille with its devices. In fact, it's possible to purchase a Braille display from the Apple Store app which you can obtain for your iOS device. If you already have a Braille display or a Braille notetaker capable of being used as a display and connecting via Bluetooth, you can pair it with your iOS device. VoiceOver has been designed to allow complete access via Braille throughout the operating system. While you can't completely avoid using the touchscreen, you can certainly minimise the need to. Doing this requires the learning of commands making use of key combinations or other buttons which your Braille display may have.

IOS has support which allows far more then simple Braille input and output. Similar to an ordinary Bluetooth keyboard, you can take full control of your device using only your Braille display. There are key commands to do everything you can do with gestures. If you can memorize the commands, you could have excellent and accurate control of your device. This includes things like summoning Siri, controling the volume, and much more all without lifting your fingers from your Braille display.

The catch is that there are a heaping ton of commands to know if you want that kind of complete control. People may find that these commands feel less intuitive and easy to learn than the touchscreen gestures they are designed to replace. Personally, I find a middle of the road approach works best where I still use the onscreen gestures but learn the commands of particular use to me.

 Byebye Braille Book Bulk!

Ebook sellers are starting to get onboard making certain that the apps everyone uses to read them offer support for accessibility. What this means for someone with an iOS device and Braille display is that they are completely liberated in their choice of reading. Braille books used to take hours and hours to translate and be very costly to produce. They also used to weigh quite a bit and take up a lot of space. I mentionned a vest pocket dictionary earlier which serves as a perfect example. Now, that same dictionary would take up a tiny fraction of the data storage available on even the cheepest iPHONE. A Braille display which you could comfortably carry in one hand would let you access that dictionary and thousands of other books on that iPHONE in perfectly readable and translated Braille.

One thing to keep in mind is that the apps you'll use to read these books are designed for people who can see. They're fully accessible but things are done in such a way as to maximise reading pleasure for people who can take in a lot of a page at once. Current Braille displays only present one line of text at a time. There may occasionally be slight problems as the apps and book formats are updated over time. Also, it may be eeasier to use the touchscreen when accessing menus and other functions which reading apps have. For instance, it's far quicker to learn the locations of tabs across the bottom of the screen or use menus which appear when you double-tap on the screen. In exchange for putting up with these small issues, you can read damned near anything you want as soon as it's published and at the same cost as anybody else who buys and Ebook.

Always a Catch;

Pitfalls to Consider with Braille and iOS:

There are some possible trouble spots for those who choose to acquire a Braille display and iOS device rather than opt for a more traditional Braille notetaker or other solution made especially for blind people. There may be times when your Braille display will disconnect since the Bluetooth software is always trying to save battery power. If this happens, simply lock the screen with the power button on your device and then unlock it again. This should result in your display reconnecting. Some displays can be more problematic and require more steps to get them reconnected. This kind of thing also happens with other Bluetooth devices such as keyboards or even Apple's own AirPods. The AirPods are designed to reconnect quite quickly and do so automatically nearly all of the time. There are so many different Braille displays that having the same kind of Bluetooth reliability would be impossible. This is very similar to my having to press a button on my Aftershokz Trekz Titaniums to make them reconnect if I stop hearing things through them.

We saw an instance of another potentially major pitfall when iOS11 was released. People who updated suddenly found that they couldn't enter text quickly on Braille displays. Words would simply be lost and not be recorded in the document or edit field on the iOS device. Because people's fingers were busy typing in Braille, they couldn't immediately realize there was a problem if they weren't also using speech. You can't read Braille while you're in the act of typing it. Muting speech while using a Braille display is a very common practice. The issue was reported by testers but not addressed prior to the release of the update. Braille display users would be a very small percentage of the overall number of users of iOS. Every so often, their issues won't be dealt with in time and may take a while to address.

This happens with other things as well. It's not just a problem for blind people. At one point, an iOS update was released which resulted in iPHONEs being unable to make phone calls. This problem was addressed extremely quickly as you might well imagine. However, it can be especially devastating if you rely completely on having Braille input since issues in that area won't be regarded as being so dire. Apple tries to only release updates when enough improvements have accumulated that receiving the updates will be noticeably helpful to a good portion of users. This practice can leave things hanging for periods of time. It took around two months for things to be fixed so that people could type productively on their displays once again. That kind of delay could be especially inconvenient for students and employees who rely on having Braille access for input and output.

I can also use speech so Braille isn't absolutely essential for me currently. However, if you're utterly reliant on Braille working correctly, keep in mind that there may be periods of time where things don't go smoothly. iOS is a very complex operating system. The more unusual your particular needs are, the higher the chance that problems like the example above will be encountered for hopefully short periods of time. Apple has learned from these mistakes and has introduced public testing of upcoming iOS updates in an attempt to catch major issues.

When looking for pitfalls, I spent some time putting myself in the worst possible case. For people who are deaf and blind, Braile had better work because there's no other way. If you absolutely can't hear speech or see enlarged print, touch is your ownly pipeline of information. In such circumstances, you may well want to look for alternatives or have a backup plan such as sighted assistance if things go wrong.

There are some things which might require sighted assistance to resolve. Certainly, you'd need such help to set up your device and then connect your Braille display initially. I don't believe there's any way to get at the Braille settings in VoiceOver until after the setup process is complete. Another thing which might be troublesome at first is entering your passcode in order to unlock your device. I have an older Focus40 display so more current displays may simply allow you to type in the passcode on them. Mine didn't so I had to enter it using standard typing mode on the touchscreen. I had one hand on the Braille display feeling which number was highlighted as I used my other hand to find and then enter the numbers using the split tap method. This is the best way I've found for making certain you enter the passcode correctly. You can, of course, find the delete key at the bottom right of the virtual number pad on the touchscreen and get rid of mistakes. I found this process somewhat nerve-racking without speech output but I think it would become second nature after a while. There's really no avoiding the need to enter the passcode every so often and after any time you shut down and turn on the device. Once that's been done, you can then use easier methods to unlock your device most of the time like Touch ID or Face ID.

While Braille focus will jump to where new messages are displayed, other things such as choices or controls may need to be more actively searched for by Braille users. Everything will be reachable but without such proactive exploration on your part, you might not realise there are choices or controls present in some apps. The ability to actively explore the screen is a key part of iOS accesssibility which works differently from other screen-readers that may look for and announce more things automatically.

Mainstream Economics and Wider Horizons;

The Advantages of iOS Over A Traditional Braille Solution Tailored For Blind People:

There are several advantages that iOS devices bring to the table for blind people wanting to make use of Braille in daily life. Braille notetakers work extremely reliably and typically have excellent battery longevity. However, they are also very limited in what they can do. They offer a set number of highly perfected functions which work flawlessly, but they don't offer much ability to grow beyond those. On the other hand, IOS gives you very good but sometimes imperfect access to an ever expanding ecosystem of apps, ebook markets, and other things available to sighted people. Even though only a fraction of the total apps available for iOS are accessible to blind people, that still far surpasses anything you'll find elsewhere other than perhaps on Android devices. No Braille notetaker will let you do your shopping and banking with apps designed by the bank and grocery company you and potentially millions of sighted customers select. This access to the same apps used by sighted people could be very helpful socially to blind students and other Braille users. It's an option they've never really had before the iPHONE gained its VoiceOver screenreader. You could read news articles on an app or web site in Braille while talking about them with friends. And then, there are the specialised apps which take advantage of hardware built into your iOS device. Presuming you opt for a small portable Braille display, you could use an app like KNFB Reader to take pictures of the pages of a restaurant menu and then read it in Braille while conversing with your dining companions. There are all kinds of situations like that where you want access to information but also want your ears free.

Braille is especially useful when it comes to the study of Mathematics. It can be tremendously hard to picture how an equation is laid out while using synthetic speech. A Braille display supported with software such as the VoiceOver screen-reader will let blind students and others feel the positions of part of equations. This can make solving them a far easier process. There are other instances where having the ability to feel the position of information is critical such as when examining charts or tables. How practical that is will depend on the length of your Braille display or feeling a table one-handed while the other hand is reading the Braille display.

Braille displays are very costly items and are built to last. I've had the same Focus40 display since I got my first iPHONE in 2010 and it still works great in 2018 with my current iPHONE7. Barring disaster, I expect my display to see me through potentially five to ten more years. The core of my system is my iPHONE and I can have the latest features without upgrading the far more expensive Braille component. Also, I can use my display with more than one device. If something happens to my iPHONE, I could still use the display with my iPAd for instance. If your notetaker breaks down, you need to repair or replace a very expensive device and be without all of its functions while you're taking care of that. If my display breaks, I still have my iOS device which can be used with speech.

If you already have a Braille notetaker, fear not. Most of them can connect via Bluetooth and act as Braille displays for iOS. You have the best of both worlds. Some notetakers are designed to integrate with apps on iOS devices making them an even more powerful combination.

Attention Please;

When Notifications Pop Up:

You're reading along when all of a sudden, the Weather Gods app decides to reveal that it's raining heavily outside. Perhaps, a friend has chosen to send a message asking how you're doing. Unless you have your device on "Do Not Disturb" or have notifications turned off, you will eventually be interrupted from whatever you might be doing by a notification from another app running in the background. In such a case, the same sort of thing happens with the focus of Braille as happens with speech. The interrupting notification automatically gets focus for a short time which you can determine before focus returns to what you were doing. Also, if you pan through the notification while it has focus, you should be able to read it in an unhurried manner. Remember that if they do disappear on you, you can always find them in the notifications centre.

Commonly Used Commands:

This guide won't go through every single command. The set of commands available to you depends on which Braille display you're using. The place you want to reach is a page called Braille Displays Supported by iPHONE, iPAD and iPoD Touch. Below that heading, you'll find a series of links to specific Braile display command lists. Additionally, below this, you'll find a link to a set of universal commands which should work on any display. At the time of this writing, this helpful resource can be found at:


The lists of Braille Commands are comprehensive well-organized lists divided into headings and tables. Apple might change one or more of these commands at any time so it's best to get them directly from Apple's own documentation. However, this subsection should go through the commands you'll need to start trying things out.

Most Braille displays come equipped with some basic control buttons or other things like wheels or rocker switches. These minimise the need to take your hands off the display in order to control the computer it is connected to. Pretty much all displays include a Braille keyboard to facilitate input. Presuming you've gotten your display paired, you should feel Braille pop up as you move your finger over the screen. The controls on your display should do what the instructions which came with your display indicate. For instance, panning buttons will move left or right through text. Navigation rocker switches and advance bars should behave in logical ways. To start finding out what all the buttons do, you can use the keyboard help command. That's the space bar plus the letter K, dots 1 and 3. Think of the space bar like a control key. Once you've entered keyboard help mode, try other space bar and character combinations. You will be told via speech what they are. This also applies to any other controls on your particular Braille display. VoiceOver has full support for at least 70 different Braille displays at the time this guide is being written in 2018. Even if your display only has a Braille keyboard, there will be enough space bar key combinations for you to control your iOS device with reasonable proficiency.

Navigating Important iOS Areas:

Any time you want to reach the home screens, just use the space bar and letter h [dots 1,2, and 5] This should work from anywhere in iOS. While on the home screen, you can start typing in the name of an app you want to get to and matching items will appear in a list which can be quickly scrolled through. You can scroll through this list or through all apps on the current home screen in order via the space bar plus dot 1 or 4 for previous and next item respectively.

Braille Settings in VoiceOver:

Within the settings for VoiceOver inside Accessibility settings, you'll find a subgroup simply called "Braille". The VoiceOver screenreader is doing all the thinking while your ultra-expensive Braille display simply moves dots up and down in perfect obedience. Your overall experience should be similar regardless of which display you use. This certainly holds true for the group of settings we'll discuss now. However, be aware that there is another group of settings called "Braille commands" which we will discuss later that allows for total customisation of what buttons and key combinations you enter on your Braille display will do.

These settings let you set things such as the particular code of Braille to be used with input and output. For instance, you might want six-dot uncontracted Braille for input and contracted Braille for output. You may not want to use UEB Braille if you aren't yet familiar with it. That's perfectly possible. Also, you can choose whether you want word rap on or off. Word rap determines whether lines end with the last possible entire word or whether they can contain the beginning of a word completed on the next line. You can also decide whether or not to have the panning buttons automatically proceed to the next page when you reach a page boundary and pan further.

Connecting a Braille Display:

The first thing to do is pair your Braille display with your iOS device. Make certain the Braille display is ready to be paired via Bluetooth and then flick right through the Braille settings until you come to "choose a Braille display." You should then find a list of any detected Braille displays. Be careful since it may think ordinary keyboards are Braille displays. When you come to the name of your display, double-tap on it to initiate pairing. You may be asked to enter a pin number using the Braille display to help secure the pairing and make certain input coming from the display is recognised as that. There may be other Bluetooth devices connected to your device or operating close by. The number you enter sets up a secure and easily identifyable connection. Once a display has been paired, you shouldn't have to go through this process again in normal circumstances. If your display loses connection, simply locking the screen and unlocking it again should restore the connection.

After you have successfully paired your display, the Braille on it should change as you move your finger around the screen. It will be showing the labels of apps or information on the screen as Braille when you touch it.

Braille Screen input:

You need not have a Braille display for Braille to be a part of your iOS experience. The Braille screen input lets you use a virtual Braille keyboard by positionning your fingers on the touchscreen as if you were writing on a braille writer. You need to enable the option in the VoiceOver rotor settings. The dot position can be calibrated to your natural finger positions on the screen surface. This kind of input can be very useful and people may find it easier than dealing with the ordinary onscreen keyboard. The Braille screen input setting lets you customize whether you want contracted or uncontracted Braille. You can also decide to reverse the positions of the outer dots so dots three and six are closest to the imaginary space bar rather than have the dot numbers increase the farther away from the space bar you get as they traditionally do.

Status Cells:

You can choose to have a cell on your display be used for showing status information rather than a character of normal output. Each dot in that cell indicates something such as that your battery is low, there is more text on the current line, a message awaits your attention, etc. You can choose whether the status cell is on the left or right side of the display. You also may choose whether it shows general information like I described above or text information such as format, font, etc for the current character. This would be useful when writing a document. If you're using a status cell, you can turn the rotor to a status cell setting and flick up or down to find out what each dot on the cell means.

Math and Equations:

There is a setting where you can choose whether Nemeth code is used for equations. Increasingly, Ebooks and other documents which contain mathematical equations are accessible through reading apps and VoiceOver. If you encounter mathematical equations while using a Braille display, one of the settings deals with whether you want the Nemeth code designed to represent mathematics in Braille to be used.

Word Wrap:

Because iOS has full control of formatting what is sent to your Braille display, it can decide when lines end. The word wrap setting lets you choose whether words rap neatly onto lines or whether a line can end with a partial word that's completed on the next line when you pan over. The first choice may help to clarify all words encountered at the end of lines. However, the other choice which allows lines to contain all possible text which can be accommodated by your Braille display may allow for faster reading.

Crossing Page Boundaries:

Another setting lets you choose whether panning over a page boundary automatically moves onto the next or previous page. I have it automatically advance but can appreciate the utility of having panning stop at page boundaries. Keep in mind that some Ebooks don't always give you printed page position. Kindle books provide a location number which you can use to instantly jump to a precise position if you know the number.

Input, Output, and Braille Codes:

There are different styles of Braille much as there are different forms of writing. Depending on when and how people learn Braille, their needs and comfort with the various forms will be different. The input and output settings let you choose whether you want six dot, eight dot, contracted or uncontracted Braille. IOS can support any of those choices quite well. You can also switch between these modes as needed. You might, for instance, wish to read in contracted six-dot Braille but write in uncontracted Braille.

In addition to the type of Braille, there is a separate setting from the input and output settings that lets you choose the overall code of Braille to be used. You can choose between US, UK, and UEB Braille codes. The UEB Braille code is the recently introduced code of Braille which Braille libraries all over the English speaking world are now using to produce books. Thanks to the Marrakesh Treaty, this will allow institutions and library patrons to take advantage of books already produced elsewhere provided the countries have ratified the treaty. By eliminating the need to duplicate work already done elsewhere, institutions belonging to countries which have signed this treaty will free both time and money to broaden their selection of books. The ability to use this new code or, at the user's preference, the older US and UK Braille codes, lowers the bar for people who may not be familiar with the newer UEB code. They will still be able to read and enjoy the latest books in Braille provided they can afford to purchase them.

Hiding the Onscreen Keyboard:

If you're not using the onscreen keyboard, you are able to hide it. This is useful if you're using a Bluetooth keyboard or a Braille display which typically has a built-in physical keyboard. A setting lets you choose whether the onscreen keyboard is shown or hidden. If you don't want the onscreen keyboard shown, that space will be re-purposed and used to display more of whatever is on the screen such as a document or page.

Braille Commands:

Taking Full Control Using a Braille Display

Controlling two separate devices at once can be taxing on the brain and on productivity. In iOS11, Apple eliminated the need for this for people using Braille displays. There is a somewhat hidden group of settings which lets you customize what all of the key combinations and extra buttons on your Braille display will do. We will now explore this group of settings Apple has chosen to. call Braille Commands.

To reach these options, you need to go into the VoiceOver settings and into the "Braille" subgroup of settings. Next, flick right through until you reach the "Choose a Braille Display" area. Flick right until you reach the "more info" button to the right of the name of your display. Double-tap on that. The very first button you come to in the "More info" area will be "Braille commands". Double-tap that and you'll have found your way in.

This seems like a strange place to stick such a powerful bunch of settings. However, it fits with how Apple has chosen to handle other Bluetooth devices. Beside any connected device in Bluetooth settings, there's a similar "More Info" button. Any connected Braille displays are Bluetooth devices so they're keeping to an established pattern. This means that you can have a different series of commands for any additional Braille displays you might need to connect with. For instance, you might have a different Braille display to use at work versus at home. In such a case, the correct set of Braille commands will be ready when you need them with no extra effort on your part.

There are seven categories of commands each with their own button. There are a good many commands and most are rather self-explanatory. Rather than exhaustively going through each one, we'll take a quick tour of each of these areas. I'll give you an idea of what you'll find and why you might want to use what's there.


The Braille area is where you can set commands that relate directly to Braille control. For instance, you can set a specific key command like space bar and dotsfive and six to let you change quickly between output modes. This would be useful if you wanted to quickly go into uncontracted mode to feel how something was spelled and then go back into contracted mode. You may want to set a command to turn word wrap on and off depending on what you're reading. For quick progression through a novel, contracted Braille with word wrap off might be the best way to go. However, when editing document, you may want uncontracted Braille with word wrap on. Settting up commands in this area lets you do that from whereever you may happen to be. Such key combinations saves you having to go all the way into Braille settings any time you want to do this.


Lets say you're sitting on a bus listening to some nifty tunes when someone sits down beside you and says something. You could be rude and ignore him or her. Alternatively, you should pause the music. A third possibly preferable option might be to use the keys on your Braille display to turn down the volume on the music so you can hear both it and the person near you. That's the kind of thing the commands in this category are for. It's where you go to customize commands letting you control your iOS device.

You can set the command which simulates pressing the Home button. Another might take you to the control centre, the Notifications area, or summon Siri. There are commands which simulate rotating your device left and right. Others would let you easily adjust the volume using only your Braille display. All the while, your iPHONE is safely tucked into your pocket.


Sometimes, especially while using BRaille, you don't want to take your hands off the display but need to perform a gestures such as a double-tap. This area has commands which let you simulate doing things like a single or double-tap. They allow you to come up with commands on your display which eliminate the need to touch your iOS device to do simple things like a long press, use 3d touch, etc. In normal circumstances, I find it easier to just touch my device and use the normal touchscreen gestures. However, if people struggle with using the touchscreen or have other hand mobility issues, these commands might make the difference between being able to use an iOS device or not. They offer a kind of precision that only a keyboard and numerous key commands can deliver. Given the relatively short time I've used a touchscreen extensively compared to the decades during which I delt with my computer via such key combos, I'm gobsmacked at how positively old-school this now feels.


This area lets you set commands to perform special things such as selecting text, copying, cutting, deleting, etc. Options to perform these tasks would normally be present on the virtual keyboard. This lets you access these options right on your Braille display using commands which you choose yourself. Many apps include extensive toolbars with these sorts of options. 


This area lets you set up commands that help you move around. There are commands for moving to the next or previous line, paragraph, app, message, and much more. If you have an iPAD, there's even a command letting you switch between apps running on the same screen. If you want to get somewhere without having to use the touchscreen, this is definitely the category to visit and make use of.


The rotor is so important that it has a separate area from the VoiceOver area right beside it. There are just five setable commands here. Next rotor option, previous rotor option, rotor up, Rotor down, and speak current rotor item. This will be especially welcome news for Braille users who have trouble with using the VoiceOver rotor gestures. People can use similar commands on a normal Bluetooth keyboard to control the rotor.


In this last category, you can set commands letting you make use of VoiceOver functions. This includes turning the screen curtain on or off, openning VoiceOver settings, speaking fhints, muting speech, and many more. These commands can be key combinations or use extra buttons on your display if this is more advantageous to you.

Making It Work:

Controlling Apps With Your Braille Display:

Now that we've theoretically covered how to set everything up, we'll discuss what it's like to control your iOS device using a Braille display. To get a proper sense of how things work, we'll examine the Google News app and make use of it completely through the Braille display. This isn't how I normally operate. Ordinarily, I would use speech output or else use the touchscreen to control apps and my Braille display for reading. However, approaching things completely through the Braille display demonstrates the possibilities for taking full control should that be necessary or perferable for you. This is the only time in the guide where this will be demonstrated. All other instructions for using apps will presume that speech output and the touchscreen are used. The techniques demonstrated here should be sufficient to help Braille users figure out how to make use of the majority of other accessible apps. The app I have chosen is available in the app store and has stood the test of time. It is a third-party app developed by people who have used Apple's accessibility tools to include blind people. Google News is very highly regarded by blind users.

You will need to make use of the app store to acquire Google News. Searching the app store and obtaining apps are covered in detail elsewhere in this guide. One easy and quick approach is to invoke Siri and say "find Google News in the app store". You would then purchase the app by using the "get" button and then completing the identification process that occurs whenever things are acquired in the iOS ecosystem. This is explained more fully later in the guide. Lets proceed with the assumption that the Google News app is acquired and present on your iOS device.

Using Google News With A Braille Display:

Google has produced a number of very useful apps for the iOS operating system. It has made certain that these apps offer support for users of the VoiceOver screen reader built into iOS. At the time this guide was being written in 2018, Canadians were still not able to make use of the News app produced by Apple. Alternatives are quite plentiful but they don't come pre-installed with iOS. The Google Nes app should prove useful regardless of which country you happen to live in. It is also free to download and use. The more you use the Google News app, the more it learns about what you're interested in. This will effect the contents of your personal briefing which is the section of the app that you start in upon opening it. To open Google News, find your way to the app and double-tap on it. Alternatively, tell Siri to "launch Google News".

Panning Left And Right:

You start out on the personal briefing screen. Try using the panning buttons on your display. One thing which becomes immediately apparent, especially if you're using speech output as well as Braille, is that more is read back to you via speech than is obvious via Braille. The length of your display dictates how much is displayed at once. After the app has opened, it focusses on a title line which also happens to be a heading. This line indicates that you're in the personal briefing section and gives the user's name. That briefing contains the top five stories that Google believes will be of particular interest to you at the moment and also has the current weather. That's too much information for most Braille displays. To read the rest of what you would hear and continue through the briefing, use the right panning button or key combination. You'll be using the left and right panning keys a great deal to look around. If you pan left as far as possible, you'l end up finding a "search" button which wasn't spoken as the app opened up. It pays to explore. Spend some time on this initial screen getting the hang of panning around. Next, do the same with using the next and previous item button or key combinations. With the standard set of Braille key commands, these are space bar plus dot 1 to go to a previous item or space bar plus dot 4 to go to the next item. This is much faster than panning since items may contain text requiring several presses of the panning button to go past. It also brings you to things such as "read more" links, buttons, and other things which might not be obviously functional given their text.

Getting Quickly To the Bottom or Top of Things:

Lets suppose you want to get quickly to the top or bottom of a screen to then start exploring from that end of it. You'll eventually want to do this to get back to the top of a story you've read to reach the "back" button in order to leave that story. You may want to reach the bottom of a screen to locate tabs so you can quickly get to another tab in the app. To do this, use the commands for reaching the top or bottom of screens. These are space bar plus dots 1,2,3 for "top" or space bar plus dots 4,5,6 for "bottom". Note the logical progression from the earlier previous and next item key combinations. There are helpful patterns such as this in the default set of commands which will aid you in masterring them.

During your explorations, you'll have come across a number of elements such as "read more" links, buttons like the "search" button near the top of the app, and tabs leading to different areas. The Google News app is chock full of things like this making it an excellent app to practice exploring with. To activate an item, use the key combination of the space bar plus dots 3 and 6. This is the "activate" command and will cause any of the buttons, links etc, to be interacted with provided you're directly upon them. Now, you can explore to any depth you wish when it comes to items discovered in the app. There will be plenty of news and articles of interest for you to read and explore.

Search Me!:

Remember that little search button we found while panning around? That packs some serious finding power. We are, after all, talking about an app made by Google which is world famous for its search capabilities. Make your way to that search button and then use the space bar plus dots 3 and 6 combination to activate it. A new dialogue wil appear. You will automatically be placed within an edit field where you can type in whatever words you wish. You can use the space bar plus dots 3 and 6 activation command when you're finished typing to proceed to results matching your terms. You can then use the commands for panning and moving between next and previous items to look through these results. Use the activation key combination to select a result and you will be taken to it. When finished, use the "back" button to return to the list of search results. Pretty simple, isn't it?

Writing and Editing Using Braille:

While you're typing in search terms, feel what's there after you've written a word or two. Below a cell in what you've written, notice a pulsing couple of dots presuming your display has eight-dot cells. These pulsing dots beneath a character are used to indicate precisely where your cursor is so that you can edit effectively. The commands to edit a piece of writing comprise the rotor commands to move around and the delete key for removing what you don't want. The delete key using the default Braille command set is space bar plus the lettre d which is dots 1, 4 and 5. In iOS, remember that the character which is deleted is to the left of the delete key so move one character to the right of whatever lettre you wish to remove.

Rotor Turning by Remote Control:

While editing larger documents or doing many other things, you would be using options on your rotor. A set of commands lets you turn the rotor without ever having touched your iOS device. While editing and writing text, you must use the rotor to move around by various amounts through text. The rotor also gives you options for selecting and operating on blocks of text. The Braile commands to turn the rotor are as follows:

1. Turn rotor left to previous item: space bar plus dots 2 and 3.

2. Turn rotor right to next item: space bar plus dots 5 and 6.

3. Flick up: space bar plus dot 3

4. Flick down: space bar plus dot 6.

By default, there is no command to speak or display the currently selected rotor item but you could set one up for yourself in the "Braille Commands" settings.

Concluding Thoughts About Refreshable Braille:

Exploring the iOS operating system through the lens of its support for Braille has been an interesting journey. I came into this not knowing about most of what I discovered. Adding to my struggles was my lack of speed in both reading and writing Braille. I kept having a sense that things should have been quicker. Indeed, they are much quicker for people who are used to operating Braille displays with other screen readers or using Braille notetakers. People who are more proficient than I at reading and writing Braille will find a lot to like and take advantage of in terms of efficiency. I don't think they would find learning the commands and what various options did to be anywhere near as frustrating as I did.

While doing research for this section of the guide, I felt that it was important to approach People who used Braille with their iOS devices on a regular basis. I wanted to see if my intuitions on when and how they used Braille were correct and what I had doubtless not thought of at all. I found more than one helpful forum thread on the Applevis site. Many people have found using Braille displays very advantageous when they need their ears free for participating in conversations while operating their iOS devices. Also, while in noisy environments where VoiceOver was hard to hear, Braille proved to be a very useful alternative.

Typing in Braille on a display was also quite often sighted as a distinct advantage rather than using the onscreen keyboard. One lady mentionned that she used text adventure games to improve her Braille typing in a less stressful way than doing homework and fretting over every mistake. Provided one is proficient enough, Braille can at times be even quicker than speech when it comes to reading or getting things done. Also, it leaves your ears free for listening to music while reading a good book.

Proof-reading is another excellent use for Braille displays. Now that word processing has become practical on iOS, people are able to read their own writing which can give a different sense of it than having it read to you. Formating information can be conveyed without breaking the flow of reading by means of the status cell.

Braille is especially useful when it comes to the study of Mathematics. It can be tremendously hard to picture how an equation is laid out while using synthetic speech. A Braille display supported with software such as the VoiceOver screen-reader will let blind students and others feel the positions of part of equations. This can make solving them a far easier process. There are other instances where having the ability to feel the position of information is critical such as when examining charts or tables. How practical that is will depend on the length of your Braille display or feeling a table one-handed while the other hand is reading the Braille display.

There are use cases, and then, there are well designed Braille display cases which let you hang the display so it's in front of your chest. You can then make use of it more easily while on the move or even while standing. My wife Sara has a very old Braille notetaker which has such a case letting her direct the choir of her church while referring to notes. Presuming you mastered the necessary commands, you could operate apps on an iPHONE in your pocket without needing to hear it speak while having your display hanging at chest level leaving your hands free for reading or other tasks. GPS apps might be operated using Braille in this manner while on the move. While recording the lecture series which accompanies this guide, I made use of a large 40-cell display on my lap along with some notes on my iPHONE to keeep me on track. Braille displays can be a powerful advantage when it comes to public speaking and presentations.

Overall, Apple has developed a remarkable and powerful platform for Braille users. This is especially true now that the ability to customise what buttons and key combinations on your Braille display will do. With that power comes the danger of making a real mess of your interface. You might make so many changes that you forget what they all are and then discover that you can't remember what the original default options were. The only solution I've found which gets you back to square one would be to make use of the "forget this device" button in the "more Info" area for your Braille display. You could then re-pair it and the settings would all return to the default ones since your customisations for the display would have been forgotten. At that point, you could begin to set custom commands again. The good news is that once you have a command set that you like, it should stay there until you use the "forget this device" button.

People may feel overwelmed with the need to learn all of the various commands and options. I certainly did. Don't forget that it's never an either/or choice. You are always free to use the touchscreen gestures you may be far more comfortable and familiar with. I think the real strength of combining refreshable Braille and iOS is when you use some of the commands but mostly use the touchscreen gestures. You don't have to memorise and use all of the commands unless they work better for you.

One thing which I have tried and can't recommend was using a Bluetooth keyboard as well as a Braille display. I had a number of instances where this seems to have caused some confusion. I found that the only way to fix this was to forget and then re-pair the Braille display with my iPHONE. Thankfully, I hadn't customized a whole bunch of commands. Had I done so, this would have been quite frustrating. The majority of Braille displays have Braile keyboards included and I suggest using those exclusively to avoid this setback.

Braille literacy isn't something which should just be thrown away. However, people who advocate for it need to make certain they come at the problem from realistic angles. One thing which I fervently hope happens is that opportunities to have fun using Braille are as strongly encouraged as possible. I learned how to type and use access technology largely by playing games. IOS presents some unique opportunities in that apps which support VoiceOver are also perfectly accessible to sighted people. Look for games which are text-based and not dependant on visual hand-eye coordination. I'll make some recommendations in the section of this guide which is dedicated to games and their benefits. There was a series of game books which did a lot to encourage young teens to read more than they were inclined to. It was called Fighting Fantasy and combined reading with choices and dice rolling. So far, the apps which are bringing these games into the modern digital age do not include support for VoiceOver. This shuts blind people out of games which they could otherwise play quite easily. I would dearly love to see this situation change and perhaps have an organisation fund the addition of accessibility to these games and other similar apps which are currently inaccessible. The excuse most frequently given for this state of affairs is that the app developers lack the funds to make this economically viable. If people really want to see Braille thrive, steps like making these sorts of games accessible could really help. I don't have many fun memories of Braille other than the occasional enjoyable book. That needs to change. I can easily envision multi-player party adventure, board and card games played on equal terms with sighted and blind players. IOS certainly allows for this but nobody has yet taken up the challenge extensively. This should and could easily change. Over time, more companies will make their apps accessibile to VoiceOver and hence, to Braille users. Rather than having this Braille access be an accidental biproduct, I would very much like to see such efforts funded and requested by blindness organisations on the lookout for opportunities for this kind of thing. There are many circumstances in both work and play were having our ears free to focus on what others are saying can be absolutely crutial. Those sorts of circumstances are where Braille can really have a meaningful impact even to people like myself who are used to speech output.

I have high hopes for greater Braile literacy thankts to the journey I've taken with Apple and Braille. It has drastically widened the scope of possibilities when it comes to the circumstances in which Braille might be used in modern life. We're stil in the early stages of exploration. There are two sources of momentum which must come into play. The piece of this puzzle which Apple does not control are affordable Braille displays. As I write this guide, serious efforts are underway to lower the financial barrier to refreshable Braille. Initiatives like the Orbit Reader and Braille Me hope to dramatically lower the cost to individuals of reliable refreshable Braille. The second piece of the puzzle is somewhat under Apple's influence. It can take measures to facilitate and strongly encourage app developers to support VoiceOver accessibility when creating apps and to keep Braille users in mind. As more apps are made intentionally accessible to users of speech output and Braille, awarenesss will spread more widely and things will get better. Future generations won't be driven away from using Braille for lack of portability and convenience. The case for inclusion has at last reached a kind of critical mass. There is a long way to go, and in the case of Braille, the breaks have been on for quite a while now. However, technology has now taken off those breaks, started the car and started us moving again. There is the potential to take Braille to some very innovative new places.