January 2018 Issue  Volume 19  Number 1

Product Reviews and Guides

Feel This: The Current State of Braille with the Windows Narrator Screen Reader

In the Creators Update to Windows 10 introduced in the spring, Microsoft expanded its built-in accessibility options for users with disabilities. In the October 2017 issue of AccessWorld, Jamie Pauls reviewed the changes to Narrator found in this update. For basic information on Narrator, I encourage you to check out that article. This article takes a closer look at how Windows Narrator performs with a braille display.

General Information and Installation for Braille Display Users

As of the Fall Creators Update, it's not possible to use your braille display as a Plug and Play device like you can with VoiceOver on the Mac. To enable braille support for your device, follow the directions in Chapter 7 in the manual for the Fall Creators Update. Only serial and USB connections are supported, not Bluetooth. You must first set up braille support in Windows and then configure it with Narrator.

Although currently in beta, Microsoft offers support for 27 different display manufacturers. To verify that your device is supported, consult Appendix D of the Narrator manual. The displays are listed there by manufacturer, not seller. So, for example, the Refreshabraille is found in the list of displays associated with Baum because Baum designed and manufactured the Refreshabraille (though APH is the seller).

Braille support is still in beta, which means that you will encounter bugs and limitations. You may lose braille support for other Windows screen readers once braille support for Narrator is installed. This is documented in the Narrator manual in Chapter 7. If you wish to revert back to using your braille display with other Windows screen readers, this chapter also lays out how to do so.

Give Me Some Input: Typing Speed

Narrator supports several languages in contracted, uncontracted six-dot, and uncontracted eight-dot braille. It is also possible to set your input and output tables to a different braille code within that language if desired. Furthermore, there are options to have the cursor represented a few different ways.

There are two input modes for use with the braille keyboard: "Braille Commands," and "Text Input Mode." If you are typing and find the PC is not typing correctly, it is likely you need to switch modes by pressing Spacebar + K.

When typing in either six- or eight-dot uncontracted braille, typing text into edit boxes works well, as long as you type slowly. For example, I'm typing this sentence at around 25 WPM, and each letter is correct. If I want to get this article completed before next May, however, I must use a QWERTY keyboard to type at a reasonable speed. With contracted braille input enabled, the results are even more unreliable. Here is what Narrator does when I type "I'm typing contracted braille on my Refreshabraille to show how input is broken." quickly on a braille display: "I'm typing contracted rl on my refeshabrl to ow how rade input is k\5/an."

When typing in contracted braille, the translator does not take context into account. If you type the word "word," the translator interprets it correctly. Let's say I hit a space then realize I want the word to be plural. When I move the cursor and add an "s," I'm left with "wordso." These issues occurred consistently with both the Refreshabraille and Braille Edge.

Keyboard Commands

There are many keyboard commands available to simulate keys found on a QWERTY keyboard including the Windows key, Tab key, and so on. A few commands also exist for keyboard combinations such as Alt + Tab, and Shift + Tab. You can also perform keyboard commands with modifiers. For example, to bring up the Run dialog, the keyboard command is to press and hold the Windows key + R. There is a command that will simulate holding down the Windows key, Spacebar with Dots 1-8, followed by pressing the letter R. There are some Narrator commands, such as toggling Scan Mode on and off, which are necessary to navigate effectively through menus and webpages. You can toggle this mode on and off by pressing the toggle for the Caps Lock key, which is Spacebar + Dots 6-8, followed by the Spacebar to turn Scan Mode on or off. For these keyboard commands to work, you must be in Text Input mode, which is not mentioned in the manual. If you don't wish to consult the manual for a list of braille display commands, pressing Spacebar + L will launch Input Learning, which allows you to press various braille keyboard combinations to get descriptions of their functions.

Navigating Webpages

You can use a wide range of keyboard commands to move quickly through webpages and documents. Using Microsoft Edge, there are commands to jump by different elements including headings, checkboxes, input fields, radio buttons, and links. There are even commands to jump to heading levels 1 through 9, though I have never seen a webpage use more than heading level 6. After loading the AccessWorld homepage I found navigation to be very consistent with Narrator. I was able to use the toggle for the Control key + L to get to the address bar and type a URL with no issues. Pressing Dot 8 activated a link as expected. In Gmail's basic view, I was able to easily move through messages using the command for checkboxes. None of these keyboard commands appear to work with the Extended Support Release of Firefox.


Speaking of email, I decided to test the Mail app that comes with Windows 10. It has an Outlook Express feel and works the same way. Many of the keyboard commands that work in Outlook also work in this app. The Mail app is free with Windows 10, and works with Narrator.


Given the wide range of keyboard commands simulating the keys on a QWERTY keyboard, multiple navigation options, and the fixes that have occurred since the Spring update, it's clear Microsoft has put a great deal of time and thought into developing braille support along with Narrator. When the bugs and limitations experienced inputting text on a braille keyboard are solved, Narrator will be a viable option for those who use a braille display without speech. It is my hope that plug-and-play support for braille displays on Windows will someday be an option for those users who can't hear or see the device well enough to go through the setup process. As this is the second beta, I'm encouraged by the work Microsoft has done up to this point, and look forward to the next update, which will hopefully bring even better braille support.

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