An overview of Braille Devices

Introduction

Whether you are a blind user searching for the refreshable braille device that best meets your needs, a parent looking for a device for your child who is blind and visually impaired, or a teacher searching for a device that fits your students needs and goals, the options are many and varied. Refreshable braille devices come in all shapes, sizes and prices and with different capabilities. How do you choose one for your use, especially when these items are not cheap and range in price from hundreds of dollars to thousands? In this article, we will only scratch the surface of refreshable braille devices (not literally of course), give readers a chance to hear about the basic functionality of several different models and discuss them according to several characteristics such as portability, price and functionality. Please understand that as a teacher and a user, I have seen many of the devices I will discuss; some I have had opportunities to view at length while others I have never had the pleasure of perusing. My information is taken from product websites, my own experiences and from the perspective of blind users who have utilized these devices in their daily lives. If there are devices that I miss in this blog post, please feel free to comment about them, ask for more information about them, or share your experiences with them so that we all can learn from each other.

Braille display, smart display or notetaker

There are three main types of refreshable braille devices: the stand-alone braille display, the notetaker and the smart display. At its core, a refreshable braille display is a device which produces braille while connected to another device. While connected to other products, braille displays are then subject to the functionality of that device whether it is a PC, Mac, or a device such as a tablet or smart phone. These products typically can be connected to computers and tablets via USB or Bluetooth connections. While connected to computers and tablets and phones, a braille display can assist the user with reading in braille what is on the screen, taking notes in braille, and navigating the various applications that the device has to offer. Stand-alone braille displays range in price from $800 to upwards of $8000. The price typically depends on how many braille cells the display has for reading. The number of braille cells ranges from 12 to 80 and most of the stand-alone braille displays have the perkins style keyboard for typing. Some models of braille display are purely for displaying braille and do not have a keyboard for braille entry. Typically, other hardware features include keys for navigation, and cursor routing buttons. It is important when looking at stand-alone braille displays to consider what products they will be used with and to check with the displays’ manufacturer to ensure there is support for the product in question whether it is a screen reader for a computer or IOS/Android. Some devices that fit into this category are as follows:

  • Braille Pen from Harpo Adaptive Technology
  • Refreshabraille from APH
  • Brailliant from HumanWare
  • Smart Beetle from HIMS
  • ALVA braille displays from Optelec
  • Vario 340 from Baum
  • Focus braille displays from Freedom Scientific
  • Seika 40, and 80 from perkins

Notetakers

When the term notetaker is used here, I am specifically discussing devices that do indeed take notes, but they have much more functionality than that. It is a term that has been used to described braille notetaking devices from the very beginning, without the consideration of the fact that these products have evolved from simply products that take notes to products that browse the web, stream music, read and play books, interface with platforms such as android, and support applications that can assist both early braille learners, the academic student, the functional student, and the blind adult in a variety of settings. The two main competitors in this arena are Humanware with their BrailleNote line of products and HIMS Incorporated with their BrailleSense line of products. These devices boast a wide range of capabilities from word processing and PowerPoint reading to YouTube Streaming and braille math support. They come with both querty and braille keyboard models, have braille displays that are either 18 or 32 cells, and can function as a braille display for a wide variety of products. Depending on the model, They have both windows based operating systems and OS’s which are on the android platform, can store and access files from other locations such as from flash drives or computers. These devices have speech so reading can be done in braille or from the onboard speech synthesizer. This can make them valuable to those who are working on beginning or increasing braille skills as the speech output may be motivating to students. For students with multiple disabilities, these devices have keys that are easily pressed, have a one-handed mode for students with decreased motor functioning, and tend to have key commands and an internal organization of applications that are straight forward and user friendly. The latest models of these products are the BrailleNote Touch and the BrailleSense Polaris which are bridging the gap between braille technology and more mainstream products such as android by having an android operating system and support for multiple applications both from google and the wider array of application developers. These devices are on the higher end of the price spectrum as they cost around $6000 for the 32-cell model. Another consideration is that although these devices are feature packed and usable in multiple environments, they are not as powerful as a computer especially when utilizing such applications as web browsing as there are still many websites that do not handle mobile devices well. Another device to look at would be the ElBraille from Freedom Scientific which is a notetaker built on the windows 10 platform and utilizes the JAWS for windows screen reader. It has 14 braille cells and retails for around $1800

Smart Displays

As technology has improved and to get braille into the hands of more people at more affordable prices, companies have begun in recent years producing devices that fall in between the stand-alone braille display and the application packed notetakers. I tend to think of them as smart displays as they share so many of the characteristics of both notetakers and stand-alone displays but are in the middle, helping to bring down the price of electronic braille while still providing functionality and allowing users to connect and utilize the features they love on their computer/mobile products.  These products are designed to be portable, range in price from $500 to $4000 and often contain unique features that are specific to the manufacturer/unit. They typically have a perkins style keyboard and the keys are easily to press. Users can read and write in braille, manage files, and access utility functions such as clocks, calendars, and document readers such as pdf or excel. These devices do not connect to the internet on their own so cannot perform web browsing, access email or independently stream music. For users that may enjoy the use of their computer with screen reading technology for more advanced web browsing and word processing but still want to be able to have braille at their fingertips to be used with and without a connected device, these devices are an excellent option. Some of these products can connect to multiple devices at once and support both Bluetooth and USB connectivity. A smart display could potentially be connected to a computer, a tablet and a phone simultaneously. The following list of products could be considered smart displays.

  • Braille Edge from HIMS INC.
  • VarioUltra from Baum (comes in 20 and 40 cell models)
  • Braille products from Handy Tech (Actilino, braille wave, and ActiveStar)
  • Braille Plus18 from APH
  • Orbit reader from APH
  • Seika Mini from Perkins
  • ESYS Displays from Eurobraille
  • EasyLink 12 Touch from Optelec

Conclusion

Once a decision has been made to purchase a refreshable braille device, the process of selecting a product begins. Although budget is a huge consideration when deciding on a device, one should look first at what the device will be used for. If the user is someone who loves to read books and journal/take notes but uses a computer or tablet for web browsing and email, then a smart display may be an excellent option. If a student has IEP goals for academics such as braille math, learning how to access classroom file sharing and their school uses google apps, then perhaps a more powerful notetaker should be considered. For users that simply want a device to have access to braille while they use other technology, then a stand-alone braille display might be the best option. The devices range in size from ones small enough to fit in a pocket to ones large enough that they primarily sit on a table for most efficient use. If you are someone who travels quite a bit, a more portable option may be beneficial. Devices on the smaller end include the Braille Pen, Smart Beetle, Seika, focus blue 14, EasyLink 12 touch, and the Actilino. Devices on the larger end would be the Alva products, Vario, focus 80, and the basic braille. Devices that are in the middle include the notetakers such as the BrailleNote and BrailleSense products, Braille Edge, focus 40, VarioUltra, and the handy tech braille wave and active star. When thinking about budget, at the bottom of the price spectrum would be the Orbit reader from APH, the braille pen, focus 14, braille plus 18, and the EasyLink 12 Touch. At the other end of the spectrum would be the notetaker products such as the BrailleNote and BrailleSense products, and devices with a larger braille display, either 40 or 80 cells. Other devices hang out in the middle, depending on the number of braille cells they boast and what functionality they offer. Consider as well how fast the user reads braille. Many users who quickly and voraciously read feel that displays with more braille cells are beneficial as they do not have to advance the braille as often. For users that are beginning with braille or are attempting to increase their reading speeds, the number of braille cells may not be as crucial. For those users who enjoy having speech along with their braille, a notetaker such as a brailleNote or BrailleSense may be a good option. Not often is there one single piece of technology that will meet every need that a user has. Making choices based on what a user can accomplish with the device, their personal preferences, the technology that they already use or need to become familiar with, their level of braille reading, their learning style and yes, the price would benefit the user of such technology. Most states have stores where products can be demoed and viewed, and technology companies such as Humanware or HIMS INC. have venders that will come to you and demonstrate products. It is difficult to truly know if a device is a good fit unless there are opportunities to sit down with it, type and read with it, connect it to other technology to see how the devices work together, and ask a lot of questions. Good luck device hunting and exploring. Its slightly overwhelming but at the same time, it’s fun!

 

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