How Do Refreshable Braille Displays Work?

May 5, 2022

Many people with vision-related disabilities use screen readers to browse the web. Screen readers typically convert text to audio, but some programs can also output text as braille — and in that case, users need an additional assistive device called a refreshable braille display. 

A refreshable braille display is a user interface device with a line of pins that raise or lower to display 40-80 cells of braille. The features of a braille display can vary significantly; some devices include a standard QWERTY keyboard, while others have braille inputs. Many devices are input-only or output-only.

To build a better website, you’ll need to consider braille users when making design decisions. Fortunately, websites that follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are well-prepared to offer an excellent experience for people who use assistive devices. 

Why are refreshable braille displays important for the user experience?

People who can read braille may prefer refreshable braille displays over audio-only screen readers for several reasons. Generally, reading and typing in braille is much faster than listening to speech. 

Additionally, many people who are legally blind have some ability to perceive colors and shapes, so they may prefer to browse with a screen reader and a mouse. A braille display can be configured to change its output continuously as the user moves their focus; audio-only screen readers typically read content in its entirety (though users can use shortcuts to skip around to headings, links, and other important parts of a page). 

Finally, braille versions of books and documents can be expensive and difficult to find. Bestselling novels may cost $100 and up, and some books simply aren’t available in a paper braille format. By using a screen reader with a braille display, people with vision disabilities can save money while enjoying better access to reading materials.

Related: How Braille Displays Help Users with Visual Impairments Access the Web

How common are refreshable braille displays? 

Braille is widely supported on both mobile and desktop operating systems, but unfortunately, most braille displays are expensive: The American Foundation for the Blind estimates an average price of $3,500-15,000, depending on the total number of characters displayed (in a quick search, we found braille displays for as low as $1,500). 

Fewer than 10% (PDF) of people who are legally blind in the United States read braille, per the National Federation of the Blind, so the market for braille displays is fairly small — but developers should take appropriate actions to accommodate these users by following the best practices of web accessibility. 

Remember, the purpose of digital accessibility is to accommodate as many users as possible. Even if only 5% of blind people use refreshable braille displays, that’s 50,000 potential users in the United States alone — and since accessible design practices also improve the experiences of other users, those practices are well worth the time and effort.

Related: 5 Myths About Screen Readers That Can Hurt Accessibility

How Web Design Decisions Affect Braille Users

The good news: Accommodating braille users isn’t difficult, expensive, or time consuming. Like all assistive technologies, refreshable braille displays can only provide accurate output when websites provide high-quality content. By following WCAG guidelines and checkpoints, creators can eliminate barriers that affect screen reader users.

Design decisions that can affect people who use braille displays:

  • Websites must contain accurate alternative text (also known as alt text) for images and other non-text elements. Without alt text, the user might not understand the purpose of certain types of content.
  • Videos, podcasts, and other media should have full transcripts and closed captions
  • Proper use of WAI-ARIA markup can help screen reader users identify navigation elements, form fields, and other interactive controls.
  • Websites shouldn’t rely on visual presentation alone to convey meaning. For example, if a page directs users to “click the green button,” some users won’t be able to determine which button is green. By providing equivalent information in text, designers can accommodate more users.

To test your content for braille users, you don’t need to purchase a braille display or download a screen reader (although using a screen reader can provide useful insights for people who browse the web with a mouse and keyboard). 

Test your content regularly for conformance with WCAG success criteria, using a combination of manual and automated audits. Start testing as early as possible in the development process — remember, building for accessibility is much less expensive than remediating issues. 

For more guidance, contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility or download our free Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility

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