An electronic braille display is a tactile device that is placed under a conventional computer keyboard, which enables the user to read the contents of the computer screen, by touch in braille. They are also known as Paperless, Soft or refreshable braille displays and vary in size from 20 to 80 braille cells.
Each cell has 6 or 8 pins made of metal or nylon, which are electronically controlled to move up and down, to display a braille version of characters that appear on the computer screen. Braille displays are driven by a screen reader, as described earlier in this information sheet.
Each braille cell shows one character from the screen at a time, which gives the users access to approximately one line of the screen on an 80 cell braille display using grade 1 braille. The displays are designed with buttons and/or bars to enable the user to roam around the screen, reading whichever part they wish. On many displays these buttons can be customised to suit the users needs. These features reduce the need to move the hands from the display to the keyboard.
All displays now have at least one row of touch cursors, these are tiny buttons, one for each braille cell. Their function is crucial - if you move away from the PC cursor to read the rest of the screen with your braille display these tiny buttons allow you to bring the PC cursor to the area of the screen that you are reading with your braille display. For example to edit that character or word.
Braille can provide layout information more efficiently and using a braille display is described by users as being more accurate. A spelling mistake, for example, is more obvious on a braille display than hearing mispronunciation amongst a lot of speech. It is sometimes said that speech is for speed and braille is for accuracy. For many people braille is their natural way of working and is an essential medium for deafblind people.
Braille displays are quite expensive and as a result you tend to find that most users of these products are in education or employment. This is because the braille display has been funded through access to work or statutory funding in compulsory and higher education.
Choosing the size of display is often a compromise between functionality and cost. More cells mean that more information can be read from the screen without having to move the display on to the next part of the screen using buttons provided. The largest displays have 80 cells giving 80 cells of information at one time and are designed specifically for desktop PCs. There is a range of sizes available from the large 80 cell displays to the tiny 20 cell displays only usable with note-takers. 40 cell displays are the most commonly used size for laptop PCs, but they can be used with desktop PCs - check that this is comfortable.
These days there are more portable displays available, including fold away ones. If you need to travel with your PC, then it might be a good idea to test these displays as they are lighter.
Always make sure that the braille display you purchase will work with your chosen screen reader. Always try before you buy to make sure it is comfortable and it provides the functionality you need in conjunction with your screen reader.
There are many different 'ranges' of braille displays, all of which offer different choices for the number of cells and features available. First decide on the number of cells you require, as this is dependent on whether you are using a laptop or desktop machine, then try some out to see what features suit you best.
One example is the Seika braille display which is a 40-cell 8 pin braille display with cursor routing buttons and four braille panning keys. It is powered and operated from a PC by the single USB connection and is small enough to be carried alongside a laptop.