May 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 3

Product Evaluation

The Quiet Touch: An Overview of Braille Access to Windows

Do you use a Windows screen reader and a speech synthesizer? Are you tired of hitting the "Spell word" command over and over? Do you have trouble knowing whether columns of text are lined up properly? Are you confused when you try to listen to a customer on the phone and your computer at the same time? Do you suspect that your screen reader is not telling you everything you need to know about what is happening on the screen? We have a suggestion: Why not try using a braille display?

Why Dash to Dots to Access Windows?

At least in theory, braille offers a number of advantages for accessing Windows. For example, in word processing programs, braille shows all the spelling mistakes, extra spaces between words, and punctuation problems that are not so easy to catch with speech. A braille display should allow you to write a letter or navigate Web pages in silence, without a synthesizer chattering at you. With braille, you decide how to pronounce names, acronyms, foreign words, and technical terms, without constant distraction from mistaken pronunciations issued from your synthesizer. Theoretically, braille should also show you the format of the screen in Windows and help to make sense out of how Windows works.

When Braille Is a Must

People who are hearing impaired as well as visually impaired rely on braille as their main way of communicating with the world. It gives them the ability to communicate by E-mail or letter. It opens doors to employment in a wide range of jobs.

Some jobs are ideally suited for braille access. Customer service representatives spend much of their time on the phone with customers while looking up information in a database. Braille access to the database allows them to search while paying full attention to the customer. They can then read account information from a braille display. Braille allows programmers to check their work, quickly spot mistakes, and then position the cursor to make corrections.

How Braille Access to Windows Works

Displays typically have a variety of keys for navigating around the information on the screen. Some displays have a great many more keys than others. A braille display, like a speech synthesizer, requires software to run. In Windows, it is screen reading software that provides the interface between the braille display and the computer applications you need to use.

Because the screen reader presents information that appears on the screen and determines the relationship among items, the screen reader manufacturer is responsible for providing the programming that allows a braille display to handle navigation. This interplay between the braille display and the screen reader software makes it difficult to sort out the unavoidable access problems that come up while using a display. It is usually unclear whether a different screen reader or another braille display would work better or if the quirk is an intrinsic characteristic of braille.

We used two braille displays in preparing this article. The Alva Satellite 544 has 18 keys plus two rows each of 45 touch cursors. The PowerBraille 40 from Blazie Engineering has six keys plus one row of touch cursors. And you know how many commands your screen reader has—probably hundreds. Therefore, some screen reader functions cannot be issued from the braille display, and to perform others involves pressing up to four controls—a task best suited for a trained octopus.

Toto, We're Not in DOS Anymore

If you loved access to DOS-based applications using a braille display, maybe you are wondering: What happened? In Windows, information is not displayed in a convenient 80 by 25 grid as it is in DOS. Characters on the screen in Windows are not all the same size, the way they are on a DOS screen or on a braille display. And, unlike previous DOS-based versions, current braille displays do not come with software that finds what is on the screen and gives a few simple commands to view it (and lots of great efficiency features once you have read the manual).

Instead, a braille display must rely on the screen reader to know what is on the screen. Windows screen readers are notorious for getting confused about what is there. Have you ever had your screen reader tell you characters were missing that you were sure you typed or that some were present that turned out not to be on the screen? A screen reader cannot give more accurate information to the braille display than it gives to the speech synthesizer.

Accurate information is only one thing you need. The presentation must be made in a meaningful way, too. Is your screen reader capable of delivering the information to the braille display in a way that is useful? For example, when you press the button on the display to move to the previous line of text, who determines what constitutes the "previous line?" In a word processor, the text is displayed to mimic the printed page, so determining the previous line might seem straightforward, at least if it is being done by a human. But in a dialog box, the "line" as a unit is meaningless. A braille display, though, has only a line to offer. So, the screen reader must break up the screen into lines, regardless of the reality of the method of display. Switching screen readers, or display modes in one screen reader, can make a big difference in how the relationships among parts of the screen are presented.

Much of the Windows screen is occupied by graphics. How does a braille display handle those? That, too, is determined by the screen reader. If your speech synthesizer calls something "graphic 203," that label is likely to show up on the display as well. Another approach is to use specific braille symbols to indicate the beginning and end of a graphic. How does your braille display know the name of the graphic? Your screen reader has a "dictionary" of graphics and labels. Who labels the graphics? Probably, you do.

How Well Do Windows Screen Readers Support Braille?

Since braille displays must rely on a Windows screen reader, will everything you love about your screen reader with speech hold true for braille? And, can you assume that its shortcomings with speech will affect your use of refreshable braille in the same way? Not all screen readers offer support for refreshable braille displays, and no two offer the same level of support. In North America, JAWS for Windows from Henter-Joyce, Window Bridge from SynthaVoice, outSPOKEN for Windows from Alva Access Group, WinVision from Arctic Technologies, and Hal from Dolphin Computer Access support refreshable braille displays (although each was first developed as a screen reader for speech output). In Europe, where more government funding has been available for purchasing assistive technology and where many languages are spoken in a small geographical area, WinDOTS from Papenmeier and Virgo from Baum are examples of braille-only support.

Although braille theoretically offers silent access to Windows and layout information not easily gathered using speech, we found that screen readers generally lacked complete implementation of their features. In other words, we were not always able to get adequate layout information, and we found braille-only access from U.S. manufacturers to be rudimentary indeed.

In general, we found that braille was treated as an afterthought. The screen readers popular in the United States clearly favored the speech user. Documentation for braille commands was typically scant, and often information was given to the synthesizer and not to the display. Occasionally, just to keep us going, we were surprised to find information on the display that we had not heard from the synthesizer.

The Downside to Braille

The biggest negative to braille access is the cost. It still costs about $70 to manufacture one refreshable braille cell. If you multiply that price times 40 cells and add the cost of manufacturing the rest of the braille display, you see why the cost is so high. With the price of a 40-cell display ranging somewhere around the price of a 1996 Ford Taurus in excellent condition, it is worth at least thinking twice before making a commitment.

What Do Other Users Say?

To get a wider perspective, we contacted some members of the American Foundation for the Blind's Careers and Technology Information Bank (CTIB) who use braille displays to access Windows. The CTIB is a database of more than 2,000 people who are blind or visually impaired and willing to be contacted to discuss how they perform their jobs and the technology that they use. Short surveys were E-mailed to 30 CTIB members who use a variety of screen readers and braille displays. Fourteen people responded. Thirteen said that they use JAWS for Windows as their screen reader, and one uses Virgo. (See the On-the-Job Profile in this issue for one individual's perspective on using braille displays.)

When asked for which Windows tasks they find braille most useful, the respondents almost all mentioned checking the format of documents, proofreading, using spreadsheets, and programming. These tasks all require attention to layout and detail. They especially noted checking numbers in spreadsheets and checking the syntax of programming languages.

When we asked for which tasks they preferred to use speech over braille, most mentioned reading long documents and reading for pleasure. Other tasks included: browsing the Internet, changing from one application to another, and reading E-mail.

Braille Dreams

Several CTIB members mentioned standardization of braille commands among screen readers and among braille displays. They also want access to tables and grids, such as those in calendars, Excel, and Access, and more creative use of braille-only features. They would like manufacturers to take better advantage of braille's strength— showing screen layout.

Connecting the Dots

Is refreshable braille for you? If you read braille and you are hoping to be able to check the spelling of words more accurately and check for syntax errors in programming, there is no question that braille will be a useful tool. Making the difficult choice between this useful but expensive device and a Ford Taurus is more a personal matter. The authors have found a braille display more useful, easier to restart after a crash, and safer to operate.

On the other hand, if you are considering a braille display because you are hoping for silence in the office, you might find the current state of screen reader development a source of frustration. Much work needs to be done to bring braille access to the level of speech access, and additional work is necessary to coordinate both to make one powerful Windows access tool.

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