iOS Devices and Focus Braille Displays

iOS Devices and Focus Braille Displays

Over the course of the last five years, I have had the opportunity to work with several students of different ages with Freedom Scientific Focus 40s, Focus 14s, iPads, and iPhones.  Paths to Technology has many invaluable articles relating to using iOS devices with refreshable braille displays.  Several can be found here: Getting Started with iPad and Refreshable Braille, iPad Curriculum, and iOS Commands.  This article is intended to concentrate on the ins and outs specific to using a Freedom Scientific Focus with an iOS device. 

Freedom Scientific produces three models of Focus Blue refreshable braille displays.  There are the 14, 40, and 80 (the number indicates the number of braille cells on the display).  People may choose the 14 if they want a device that is highly portable, such as one they can easily carry in their purse to use with their phones.  Focus 40s are very popular because they offer enough cells to efficiently read books and lengthy documents while not being as cost-prohibitive as Focus 80s.  Focus 80s are favored by professionals who require a high number of cells to efficiently perform their work.  The buttons and commands are all the same between these displays, although their arrangement varies slightly. 

Pros and Cons of Focus Blue Displays with iOS Devices


  • The extensive number of gestures that can be performed with Focus buttons to improve consistency and efficiency.
  • The larger number of braille cells for efficient reading and editing when comparing a Focus 40 with displays with 20 or fewer cells.
  • Absolutely no device menu makes it very accessible for beginners.
  • Consistent Bluetooth connection when compared to other devices (no Bluetooth braille displays are perfect).


  • These displays have no standalone notetaking functions as several devices do now, such as the Vario Ultra or the Braille Edge.
  • Depending on the model, there are less expensive devices available.  This is especially true if you are able to acquire a refreshable braille display through federal quota funds. 
  • Other braille displays are designed for quicker switching between several Bluetooth devices.  If your student is using the Focus with their iPad via Bluetooth and computer via a USB, this is not a concern.  If they have several devices, it could be a deterrent. 


If you prefer learning through watching or listening, I have created a video that goes over several of the elements discussed in the rest of this article, including Focus layout; interacting with the iPad with Focus buttons, gestures, and commands; and understanding how braille translation works with iOS.  Even if you watch the video, scan the article for some content not discussed in the video.

The Basics

  • Pairing: To reduce issues with pairing, always turn on the Focus before unlocking the iPad and lock the iPad before turning off the Focus.  I cannot emphasize this enough to minimize frustration!  Please see this document for instructions for pairing with iOS.
  • Battery Charge: The Focus does not have any visual indication of battery charge.  The charge is indicated as a low cell number followed by Dots 1, 4, 6 (pan to the second line on the Focus 14 for this information).  A circle formed by the braille dots indicates it is charging.  As the manual explains, “To check the battery status while the display is in use, press the power button to display the percentage of battery charge used. Press a cursor router or any other control to return to normal operation.”
  • Power: To power on the device, hold the power button for three seconds until braille pops up on the display (you can usually hear it pop up as well as feel it).  When the device is not paired, it will say its model name and battery charge. 
  • iOS Settings: To change braille settings, go to Setting>General>VoiceOver>Braille.  Make sure you go through the braille display output and braille display input at the top to set them to the appropriate choices for your student.  Also consider turning off automatic braille translation under Braille Display Input to minimize frustration with the iPad or iPhone translating words incorrectly before the student is finished writing them. 
  • Braille Translation: With iOS, VoiceOver must be on for braille translation to function.  If you want your student to be just reading braille, they can mute VoiceOver speech by pressing m and space or they can double-tap with three fingers to turn speech on and off (triple-tap with three fingers if they have Zoom turned on also).  While the student is typing, the word they are actively brailling will show up on their display.  They can backspace and edit the word while they are writing it.  It is not translated until they hit space after the word, which will then make VoiceOver say the word and the word will appear on the screen.  Once the student hits space, all the braille they have written will show up on the display instead of just the word they are actively writing.  Remember that to backspace in iOS you must push space and dot 7 simultaneously and for enter/new line you must push space and dot 8 simultaneously.
  • Full Cell: This is critical for minimizing confusion.  If the Focus is not performing a command or action you expect it to and the iPhone or iPad is just making a dinging sound, check your display to see if there is a full cell at the beginning and end.  If so, it means that you inadvertently hit a dot and the Focus thinks that you are in the middle of writing a word.  Hit space and the display will go back to functioning normally and accept your commands. 

Focus Layout

You can read complete information about the Focus layout here. I also discuss the layout the video above.

Devices Buttons In Place of Gestures

With a Focus you can use the device’s buttons to perform several tasks on iOS devices without having to use the gesture or the braille command (also known as a chord which means that it includes pushing space and a combination of braille dots).  You can find a full list of these on this Apple support page.  I have had great success with students using Focus buttons to perform the equivalent of gestures, including single-finger flick, three-finger flick, and double-tap. 

Why is this helpful?

  • This enables them to consistently perform that task (even the most expert users make mistakes with gestures).
  • They improve efficiency by keeping their hands on the braille display
  • They may find using buttons less tedious and/or easier in terms of motor skills than chords (they can be done with fewer fingers and just one hand, which may be especially helpful for people with orthopedic impairments)
  • They can be easier to memorize for some people than chords.

Using Braille Commands

The Focus displays still use all the same iOS braille chords to perform tasks as other displays.  Please see this comparison chart I created of basic gestures, chords, and Focus buttons: Beginning iOS Focus Comparison Chart.

  • You will teach students at least some braille chords because, as the chart shows, there are many more braille commands than there are specialized buttons on the Focus.
  • Students are often excited and fascinated to learn braille commands.  With younger students, I show them the “braille magic trick” I can do.
  • For students unfamiliar with using braille commands, it may be awkward at first to simultaneously press the braille dots and spacebar.  This will come much easier after some practice.
  • For people who have previously used iOS devices with other braille displays or notetakers, you can emphasize the braille chords instead of the buttons mentioned above.  This will help them make an effortless transition.  You may later introduce the functions of the buttons in case they prefer that to the chords.
  • If you have a student who will be using multiple brands of displays or notetakers, you should concentrate primarily on the braille chords because these apply to all devices.  You can later introduce the buttons if desired.

Form Matters

  • Emphasize students using their thumbs for the space bar and pinky fingers for dots 7 and 8.  This is awkward for people at first, but it makes them much more efficient than if they move their hand down every time to use the space bar with their index finger. 
  • Do not let students develop bad reading habits.  Some kids who are two-handed readers on paper may try to read with one hand on the braille display.  Think about efficiency in hand positioning for pushing the panning buttons.  For example, if a student is always a left-handed braille reader, insist that they at least keep their right thumb on the panning key.
  • Do not let students obsessively check the braille display while in the middle of words or sentences.  It is wonderful for them to be able to check if they genuinely think they made a mistake, but they will be slowed down too much if they check after every letter or word.  You can remind them that they do not check that often when they use a physical brailler.

Boy brailling with Focus 40 with all fingers correctly on dots 1-8 and his thumb above the space bar.

Tactile Marking

  • Braille Keys: Consider tactile marking on the braille keys, such as just dots 1 and 4, to minimize mistakes with brailling stemming from the students positioning their fingers incorrectly because of being used to 6 keys instead of 8.
  • Left and Right: See the "Left and Right" bullet point below under “Sources of Confusion.”

Focus 40 with tactile stickers on dots 1, 4, 7, and 8.

Sources of Confusion

  • NAV Rockers vs. Rocker Bars: Kids chronically confuse the NAV rockers and rocker bars when they are getting started since they both have “rocker” in the name.  It is easy on the 40 and 80 to emphasize that the rocker bars are in fact shaped like bars.  You do not have that advantage with the 14 because the rocker bars are not very wide on that device.
  • Dots 7 and 8: The terminology of dot 7 and dot 8 can be confusing because most kids do not have familiarity with 8 dot braille.  Repetition usually reduces this issue.
  • Left and Right: It is confusing that the left and right NAV rockers and the left and right rocker bars do different gestures, while the mode buttons both act as a double-tap.  For a student with significant problems remembering left and right, consider using a texture on one side’s buttons (e.g. put felt on both the left NAV rocker and left rocker bar).  Alternatively, you can put tactile arrows next to the NAV rockers.  The left side could have up and down arrows to indicate that left acts as an up or down flick and the right side could have left and right arrows to indicate that the right side acts as a left and right flick. 
  • Auto-Correct: While this is not specific to the Focus, I believe it is worth pointing out.  Young children and poor spellers may be frustrated when auto-correct transforms what they were trying to write into something totally different.  I once had a first grader get her word auto-corrected to "disenfranchisement," which does not seem like a first grade word.  Consider turning off auto-correct, and possibly spellcheck or other automatic changes, by going to General>Keyboard and unselecting the applicable choices. 

E-Book App Issues

  • VoiceDream: I have had issues with the Focus 14 and 40 repeating the first line on a new page in VoiceDream.  This is odd because I do not have the same issue with a Refreshabraille 18 with the same settings.  I have also had issues with them skipping lines, which is more worrisome.  I addressed this by increasing the font size.  On the iPads I have tried a font size of 29 or larger to make it repeat a line instead of skipping.  If you encounter this, you are not the only one.  If you have a solution, please comment.  If VoiceDream is repeating more than one line, instead of just the first on each page, this can be fixed in the VoiceDream Settings by going to Visual Settings>Advanced Visual Settings>Cursor Position and changing to "On Page" instead of "Centered."
  • Read2Go: To use a braille display in Read2Go, you must go into Settings>Audio and turn Read2Go audio off.  You will then be using VoiceOver to access the Read2Go book and will be able to pan through the book with your Focus.  When Read2Go audio is turned off, you do have to double-tap on the next section button when you reach the end of the section you are reading in braille.  The length of sections depends on how a book file has been set up but will commonly be a chapter.


Overall, I have found Focus braille displays to be a user-friendly, reliable way to access and edit content on iOS devices in braille.  I encourage you to take a few minutes to practice on your own before trying the device with your student.  Just a little practice for yourself goes a long way to understanding the device.  I welcome your comments below about strategies you want to share or problems you have encountered.

Collage of iOS focus and Pad


Posted by Diane BraunerJun 20, 2018

Are you having issues with the Focus missing letters when you type or when backspacing a word or sentence and retyping it, the first letter is always capitalized even in the middle of a word? I am having both of these issues and they are annoying. I do not currently have a Focus; I use a Brailliant. - K

Read more about: Assistive Technology