Touch screen devices are getting slicker and smoother to operate, and once you get used to the swipe, the tap and the pinch, they are incredibly easy for a sighted person to operate, but how do you go on if you are visually impaired or blind? A totally smooth touch screen is totally useless if you can’t read what’s on it. It’s a problem that had not occurred to me before I saw an article about a Stanford University summer project which started in 2011, and has now been developed into a stand-alone app for iOS called iBrailler Notes. This app allows visually impaired and blind iPad users to use Braille on the touch screen and carry out basic word processor tasks.
iBrailler is not the first attempt to produce commercial accessibility apps for blind and sight-impaired people, many different approaches have been tried such as an app that uses a camera and describes the image verbally to the user, plus other apps that read Braille and can be used to write. In addition, there is an Apple accessibility feature called VoiceOver which can read out text, and there is a QWERTY Braille keyboard available.
Braille displays are generally extremely expensive, they can cost between £1,300 and £3,900 each and a Braille keyboard is a different beast altogether to a QWERTY keyboard. Braille letters are made of up to 8 dots, so a Braille keyboard has 8 keys plus a row of between 18 and 80 Braille cells on a ‘display’, each cell consisting of 8 small pins that lift to form each letter. The user ‘reads’ the ‘display’ with their fingers, and this technology allows them to read and write on a computer.
What sets iBrailler apart is the keyboard sits on the iPad screen, and no matter where on the screen you place your hands, the keyboard is there under your fingertips. Lift your hands off the screen and replace them, and once again the keyboard is there ready for use. The keyboard incorporates 6-dot Computer Braille and Braille English Grades 1 and 2, plus you can cut, paste and copy, just any other iPad user.
There are many millions of blind and sight impaired people in the world, and many of them would benefit from access to computers, but sadly cost has prohibited many from gaining that advantage.
The creators of iBrailler Notes hoped that a more affordable keyboard would benefit more people, so if it could be developed and made widely available at a reasonable price, it would be of real benefit to blind iPad users. The iOS app is already available as a free download from the App Store, and there is a subscription option for people who would like to take on additional features.
One of the groups of users who would benefit are students who in the past have been lumbered with using equipment that makes them stick out as ‘different’, but if they can use an iPad, it means they not only have access to some of the best technology in the class, they can also type more quickly and therefore learn and work more easily. The iPad has been widely adopted in education, and blind accessibility has always been present due to VoiceOver, but being able to type rather than dictate has distinct advantages but has previously been cost-prohibitive.
Feedback has all been positive so far, and iBrailler Notes is in active use in the US and Sri Lanka.