Refreshable Braille Displays (RBD) are peripheral devices that display braille characters, usually be raising and lowering dots through holes in a flat surface. Users can input braille using the 6 or 8 key Perkins-style braille keyboard. An RBD can be paired with a computer, tablet or smart phone via Bluetooth connection and/or a chord. Braille displays are offered with a range of braille cells available.
With the introduction of simple touch-screen tablets, braille displays are now being used to supplement traditional paper braille for emerging readers. Young students should be exposed to paper braille as well as refreshable braille. Refreshable braille is not intended to replace paper braille! Paper braille provides important format information – specifically paragraphs - which the current one-line RBD’s cannot display.
Benefits of Using a Braille Display
There are many benefits of pairing a braille display with an iPad for emerging braille readers.
Finger Strength (Writing)
The tradition Perkins Braille Writer is a manual device (similar to a manual type writer) requiring significant amount of finger strength and isolated finger control. Young children tend to place several fingers on one key in order to press the key down. The RBD only requires a very light touch to produce braille characters. Since very little finger strength is required, students place one finger per key and are able to press multiple keys at a time which is required to produce braille characters.
Smaller braille displays, 14 to 20 cells devices, are designed to fit small preschool and early elementary hands. While braille displays with more cells enable students to be more efficient with reading/writing as students can access more characters at a time.
Reading (Discriminating Braille Dots)
When the keys on the traditional Perkins Braille Writer are not pressed hard enough, “mushy” braille is created, which is hard to read tactually. For many students – especially emerging readers, students who struggle with tactual discrimination or students who have motor issues – traditional paper braille may be challenging to read. Refreshable braille pins are consistently “crisp” and are easier to read.
When the braille display is paired to a computer, tablet or smart phone, the braille display can be set to announce individual letters, words or sentences; this provides instant auditory feedback as the student types. Emerging braille readers enjoy “scribbling” – pressing a variety of keys whiling hearing and then touching the braille dots they just created.
The screen reader can be muted so that the student must rely on tactually reading the braille character (without the auditory feedback).
Motivation plays an important part of an emerging braille reader’s attitude towards learning braille characters. There are braille letter, phonics, word games and early reader books available for iOS devices and more preschool, kindergarten and early elementary reading and writing apps are being developed with built-in accessibility. These early reader apps incorporate music and interesting sounds, which further intrigue students with visual impairments. These inspiring educational apps make learning fun!
Note: Currently iOS devices have better compatibility and more accessible educational apps for young braille readers than Android devices.
General Education Teachers
Classroom teachers are typically familiar and comfortable with tablets and smart phones but are not familiar with braille. The computer, tablet or smart phone displays the content in print while the RBD displays the content in braille – enabling both the student and the teacher access at the same time. The teacher can glance at the screen to see what the student is doing and can even edit the document on the fly. With traditional paper braille, a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) or paraprofessional must recreate the material in braille for the student and then transcribe the student’s braille into print for the classroom teacher.
Classroom teachers, who now have the ability to view and interact with the student during the lesson, are now taking “ownership” of teaching language art skills to young students instead of relying on the TVI to teach these skills. The braille student tends to have less “pull out” time and is participating more in class with his/her peers.
In the 21stcentury classroom, more digital materials and online resources are being used. Many of these educational materials are fully accessible. Digital materials (Word/Google Documents, PowerPoints, Google Forms, etc.) created by the classroom teacher who, after quick instruction if needed, can create fully accessible materials for all her students.
Note: Not all mainstream materials are created to be accessible and there are challenges in creating accessible math resources. Materials that are plain text or text with images (with image descriptions) are typically accessible, including many educational websites for students.
Editing digital materials with the RBD is relatively easy – especially with RBD’s that have routing buttons. (Routing buttons are located under or above each braille cell; when pressed, the cursor moves directly to that location enabling the student to easily navigate and make edits. With traditional paper braille, a student erase a braille cell by pushing dots in and braille over the cell (if the paper is still in the braille writer) or can “x” out the incorrect braille. However, the student cannot change the spacing, meaning he cannot add additional braille characters.
The RBD also enables the student to re-arrange words, lines and paragraphs using copy-and-paste commands and the student can delete chunks of characters. This is not possible with paper braille. With paper braille, the student would have to re-braille the work to make major changes or to make a “clean” copy.
Students can duplicate or make multiple copies of digital materials. He can share multiple the digital copy with his teachers, family members and peers. Traditional paper braille is single copy only.
Sharing/Group Projects (Elementary Students)
In digital classrooms, students frequently work together on projects. Digital projects can be shared, and multiple people can make changes to the project. The visually impaired student has instant access to work done by sighted students and vice versa.
The student can create a “hard copy” (print copy and/or brailled copy) by sending his work to the classroom printer or to the embosser (hard copy paper braille).
Progress of Reading and Writing Skills
While no formal research is yet available, numerous TVIs have been thrilled with the progress that their emerging readers are making when students are introduced to reading and writing using a combination of paper braille and refreshable braille. The ease of reading and writing and the motivating apps (along with the other benefits listed above) are making an impact. More potential braille readers are entering kindergarten with solid braille skills than ever before!