About 2.3 percent of the U.S. population has some form of visual disability. A small percentage of those people read and write in braille — and they don’t stop reading braille when they use computers and mobile devices.
Support for electronic braille devices has grown over the past decade, but braille is often ignored in discussions of web accessibility. In this article, we’ll discuss four common misconceptions about braille users and provide some quick tips for considering people with vision disabilities when designing your content.
1. Myth: Every person who is blind reads braille
Unfortunately, braille literacy is low in the United States. Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 legally blind people in the U.S. read braille, though literacy advocates have pushed to improve that number.
Braille literacy is important for the same reasons that text literacy is important: People who develop the ability to read are more likely to pursue education, find employment, and live independently. According to Perkins School for the Blind, 90% of employed people with blindness can read and write in braille.
2. Myth: Braille is less useful than text-to-speech tools
Text-to-speech software is extremely helpful for people with vision disabilities, but it has limitations. For starters, braille is much, much faster than text-to-speech: Per Perkins School for the Blind, some braille readers can read up to 400 words per minute — significantly faster than the average visual reader.
Secondly, braille users need a way to fill out forms and write out their thoughts. If a person has been blind from an early age, they may not have experience with a traditional keyboard; a braille keyboard enables them to type without relying on text-to-speech readouts, which can be inaccurate or slow for some types of writing (for example, if the text contains homonyms).
Finally, some people with vision disabilities may also have conditions that affect their hearing, and text-to-speech tools might not be an option for these individuals. Braille is robust, which makes it an important tool for accessibility. Put simply, braille is not obsolete.
3. Myth: People don’t use braille when browsing the internet
A refreshable braille display is a computer input device that mechanically raises pins under the user’s fingertips to display 40-80 cells of braille.
Refreshable braille displays are widely available, though they tend to be expensive: Prices range from $3,000 to $10,000 on average, depending on the number of cells in the display. Braille overlays with tactile stickers are also available for standard keyboards. Overlays don't allow the user to read braille, but they’re fairly inexpensive.
Most major screen readers like JAWS and NVDA support refreshable braille displays, enabling users to browse the web with braille alone (or with text-to-speech output, depending on their preferences).
4. Myth: Every website works with screen readers and braille displays
We wish this wasn’t a myth — unfortunately, that’s not the case. Most websites have significant issues that impact the experiences of users with vision-related conditions.
Some examples of common accessibility issues include:
- Missing alternative text for images. If an image doesn’t have descriptive alternative text (also called alt text), screen readers can’t explain the purpose of the media to the user.
- Inaccurate WAI-ARIA markup. WAI-ARIA is a technical specification that defines complex web content for assistive technologies. Poorly written ARIA can make a site unusable for screen reader users — and unnecessary WAI-ARIA can cause screen readers to behave unpredictably.
- Poor keyboard accessibility. Braille users often navigate the web without a mouse. If a site contains “keyboard traps" or a confusing focus order, the user experience suffers.
Every content creator has a responsibility to accommodate as many users as possible — and to make the internet a more comfortable space for people who use assistive technologies. By following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you can remove the barriers that affect screen reader users while optimizing your website for a much broader audience.
WCAG is based on four principles: Content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. When you design your website or mobile app with these principles in mind, you’ll provide users with a better experience, regardless of whether they use braille displays, screen magnifiers, eye-tracking devices, or any other type of tool.