Ten Useful Tips for Braille Users of iDevices by Scott Davert


This post was partially inspired by articles which give general advice about seemingly less-known features of an iDevice. You will also find blog entries on other tech topics scattered throughout the Internet which have similar tips for pretty much any mainstream type of technology. To add to this body of literature, I have compiled 10 useful tips for braille users of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad below. This article was written with the intent to provide both those who are new, and those who are more advanced braille users, with some new and helpful tidbits of information. These tips come from my knowledge as a braille user of iDevices, as well as from my work in the field with other individuals who are deaf-blind who also use braille with their iDevices.

Improving the connection process

If Bluetooth is enabled, each time you press the Home key on your iDevice, it will search for other Bluetooth devices which it can connect to. This includes braille displays that have already been paired. So to have a greater chance of getting your iDevice and braille display to start communicating immediately, it is a good idea to have your braille display on and in discoverable or terminal for screen reader mode before unlocking your iDevice. As long as the 2 have been previously paired, and that braille display is the chosen one in VoiceOver, the pairing process should commence very quickly. It is true that you can sometimes get the braille display to connect while turning it on with your iDevice already unlocked, but this will not always be successful.

What's with the funky symbols in iOS 7?

If you are a braille user living in the U.S., Canada, UK, or any other country which has not officially adopted Unified English Braille yet, you may be wondering what the deal is with some of the braille translation. The issue is that iOS 7 automatically uses the Unified English Braille table, no matter how your regional and language settings are configured. This includes if you had previously configured a different translation table in English prior to upgrading to iOS 7. If you wish to switch back to U.S. or UK braille, go in to Settings, General, Accessibility, VoiceOver, Braille, and then select Translation table. Select 1 of the 3 choices, and your braille will switch to that translation table.

Noisy VoiceOver, quiet display

In iOS 7, you can turn off VoiceOver sounds without impacting system sounds. This is useful if you wish to receive sound alerts about notifications, but find the clicks and beeps of VoiceOver to be annoying. There are two ways of doing this. You can either add it in to your rotor settings with VoiceOver or go to Settings, General, Accessibility, VoiceOver, and then turn the "sounds" off.

What was that again?

Sometimes, VoiceOver gives you a result or displays information which flashes up in braille and then disappears. One example of this is with the Looktel Money Reader app, another when getting a result with TapTapSee, and a 3rd in certain hints with Dice World. Fortunately, starting with iOS 6, you can read it again if you didn't catch it the first time. To do so, press space with N and you can then review a history of the last few things VoiceOver sent to the braille display at your own pace. To go to the previous item, press space with dot 1, and press space with dot 4 to advance through the history. When you're done reviewing these messages, press space with N again to return to wherever you were in iOS. Note that while you are reviewing these messages, pressing space with dot 1 or dot 4 will still move the VoiceOver cursor, so once you press space with N the second time, you may be returned to a different point on the screen.

Dude, where's my battery life?

Anyone who uses external hardware that connects through Bluetooth, whether it's an external GPS receiver, headset, keyboard, or braille display, can attest to the fact that it is quite the battery hog. While logic may dictate that using the screen curtain will help save battery, since it makes the screen go dark, this is not true. The screen curtain is, quite literally, a curtain that goes over your screen and is a VoiceOver-specific function. You can verify this by turning your screen brightness up to 100 percent while the screen curtain is enabled and watching your battery do a downward spiral. You can also feel heat around the edges of the screen after using your device with the brightness set this high after several minutes. Instead, you may have guessed it, set your screen brightness to 0 percent. Just remember to bring the screen brightness back up some when you wish for a sighted user to see your screen clearly. You can do this by going in to the control center in iOS 7. With earlier versions of iOS, you can also adjust the screen brightness by going into settings, brightness and wallpaper, and then making the adjustment this way. For even more practical ways to conserve battery power, please see David Goodwin's article called Tips For Improving Battery Life in iOS 7 at www.applevis.com/guides/ios/tips-improving-battery-life-ios-7.

Hey, what's this button do?

While most modern-day braille displays have a Perkins-style keyboard and cursor router buttons, they also have some buttons which make them unique. They are configured to help make your life easier in various ways. For example, they may scroll in a certain direction and be located in such a way that you can operate them while not having to take your hands off of the display. While the manual and the various commands listed on apple.com are great, it's not always convenient to pull up such a list. Fortunately, iOS has you covered. From anywhere in iOS, press space with K to activate VoiceOver help. This will allow you to not only press buttons and keyboard combinations to find out what they do, but will also let you practice gestures and keyboard commands that you may use if you have a bluetooth keyboard. These are messages that flash up, so press space with N if you miss them the first time. To exit keyboard help, press space with B to activate the back button. You will be returned to where you were before entering this mode. Note that when there is no message flashing up, the braille display will still show the last thing that was on it before you entered keyboard help. This is a known bug that has been reported.

Hurry up, why don't you?

In iOS 7, there have been many changes to the user interface. While most of these do not impact braille users directly, there is one that can affect the performance of your device. This is called reduced motion. Go in to settings, general, accessibility, and under the vision heading, turn on "reduced motion." This will cause less battery drain and should also speed up your device a bit more, as there is less demand on the processor when this feature is turned on.

But can do? I don’t think so!

Some people may be shrugging their shoulders at the title of this tip, but anyone who knows contracted braille will not be. For some braille users, they enjoy using contracted braille, but their typing speed for inputting this method may be slower than the device likes. If you wait too long between letters, for example, if you wanted to type out the word "float," you may end up with "fromlikeoathat." This is because after a few seconds, the Apple braille driver assumes that when you enter a single letter, you want that to be the one-word equivalent. In iOS 7, there is a feature which allows you to turn off this automatic translation. Go into settings, general, accessibility, VoiceOver, braille, and then turn this feature off. Doing this will make it so that nothing is translated until you press either space or backspace. The drawback to this is that you cannot see words as you type them, and editing becomes rather cumbersome since you must hit space with 4-5 in order to translate something without hitting the spacebar. So while this may be a good feature for those who can keep track of what they're writing, it's a feature I'd use only when writing a document. You can always re-enable automatic braille translation when you are editing something if you wish, so it's just another option. Alternatively, pressing space with G from anywhere within the operating system will toggle between contracted and uncontracted braille. While it may take slightly longer to type out uncontracted braille, you may find that it actually saves you time in the long run since you will not have to go back and correct all of those mistranslations. Note that if you choose to type in uncontracted braille, you will need to use the computer braille symbols for punctuation marks and numbers such as the period (dots 4 an 6), the question mark (dots 1-4-5-6), etc. Turning contracted braille on and off is a feature with all versions of iOS that have braille support.

The braille master is at the controls

Also new in iOS 7 is the control center, which gives you easy access to what Apple feels are essential controls that you need convenient access to such as wi-fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, and many others. While touch-screen users must tap the status bar and then swipe up with 3 fingers, a braille user can simply press space with dots 2-5 from anywhere in iOS and be presented with the control center. Hit a cursor routing button above the toggles to change them instantly. Press space with B to exit when you are done with the control center.

Get notified

Similarly, touch-screen-only users will need to tap the status bar and then swipe down with 3 fingers to pull up their notifications center. As a braille user, you can instantly pull up your notifications center by pressing space with dots 4-6. As before with the control center, press space with B to exit the notifications center.