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Collection: Technology for Students Who are Visually Impaired

Purple arrow (1137 bytes)Braille Access to Input to a Computer

NCIP Staff (1994)

The following is an overview of adaptive devices which facilitate inputting to a computer through Braille plus descriptions of specific products to illustrate the technology. The products cited are used as examples of the technology and do not constitute a complete list of products. Inclusion of a product's name does not imply endorsement of that product and descriptions of products are supplied by the manufacturers and are not evaluations of the products.


Braille is a code of letters and symbols that is read by fingers moving across a series of raised dots. The Braille code that is used today is based on one that Louis Braille developed in the mid-1800s. There are several forms of Braille, including the most common, Literary Braille. Additional codes have been developed for musical notation, work in math or science, and computers. Foreign languages have their own codes as well. Braille code is made up of Braille characters called cells. Each cell consists of varying configurations of six individual dots, two dots wide and three dots high. Using a combination of these dots, letters, math symbols, or music symbols may be written.

There are two forms of English Literary Braille: grades 1 and 2. Grade 1 Braille consists of the alphabet, numbers, and standard punctuation. Grade 2 Braille has the preceding with contractions in order to save space and time. In contracted Braille, frequently used words or combinations of letters can be represented by a single Braille symbol. For example, the word have can be contracted so that it is represented simply by the letter h.

Working with different codes of Braille may be a requirement for the student who is visually impaired and therefore, may also be a factor when choosing an assistive technology product. When making a decision on which product to purchase, however, it is best to make the decision with the help of a vision specialist who is acquainted with the student's educational needs. The vision specialist will be able to offer advice on the spectrum of technology features, including the best way for the student to learn and work with Braille codes. In the future, technological advances that will enable computers to easily translate many grades of Braille, and the development of one encompassing Braille code may make such considerations less of a concern.

Mechanical Braille writer:

One of the first attempts to increase the production of Braille writing was the mechanical Braille writer, the most common being the Perkins Brailler. The mechanical Braille writer operates like a typewriter. It has six keys, (each representing the individual dots in a Braille cell, a space bar, a carriage return, and a line feed key). Advances in product development have led to an electric model. The Braille writer is still in use today and several computer products have been designed to augment its capabilities. Braille-n-Print by HumanWare, Inc. and MPrint by Telesensory are two products that translate the Braille from the Braille writer into text, and, when connected to a printer, will enable the production of text output.

There are two ways the user who is visually impaired can input into a computer. The user can

  1. braille in text by the direct typing of braille, or
  2. input text through a keyboard.

Inputting text can be facilitated by the use of tactile braille overlays or keyboard locators that enable the user to locate the keys on the standard computer keyboard.

(1) Direct Braille Input Overview:

A student who wishes to write on the computer inputting in braille can do this with a braille keypad or by using the regular computer keyboard where certain keys are defined for braille use. This is sometimes referred to as "direct entry" of braille. Direct entry is usually one feature of many in a product that can include refreshable braille display, translation software, and printing capability. Braille notetakers are a product whose combined features include direct braille input.

Sample Products

BEX is a word processor for Apple IIe and IIc computers that can create large print, Braille, or synthesized speech output. Large print can appear on the screen or compatible dot-matrix printers. BEX can translate standard print files to grade 2 Braille, or back-translate grade 2 Braille files to print. Special symbols, called translators, can be typed into the files to determine whether grade 2 or grade 1 Braille is produced. Word processing functions include editing, reviewing, changing, page numbering, creating running heads, and setting margins and tabs. Three preview modes create an exact image of the printed or embossed page for visual and voice review. An Apple computer with a minimum of 128K is required. Contact manufacturer for details on compatibility with Braille output devices, printers, and speech synthesis hardware.

Braille notetaker which includes a calculator, calendar, and stopwatch. The Braille'N Speak contains additional memory and the ability to run auxiliary programs such as a spelling checker and scientific calculator.

For IBM-compatibles. Compose and edit Braille on-screen using six of the home row keys as if they were the keys of a Perkins Braille typewriter.

Braille notetaker, Braille printer, electronic Braille writer, "Braille typewriter"--accepting characters from a standard QWERTY keyboard. Includes optional forward and reverse translators. HumanWare, Inc.

Micro Braille is a Braille word processing program for the IBM-PC for sighted transcribers. Used with the right hardware (see below), Micro Braille will display 25 lines ( a full page ) of Braille characters on the computer's monitor. Input to the program is typed and the screen displays Braille dots corresponding to the letters. Besides usual word processing features (including page numbering and running heads), Braille page breaks ( a line of hyphens) and Braille guide dots can be added. The program can import ASCII files of up to 60 pages in length. Although it does not require a color monitor, Micro Braille does require a color graphics adapter board. A standard 200 line monochrome monitor will work: an IBM 360 line monitor will not work. Micro Braille will interface with various Braille embossers accepting serial input. Contact manufacturer for details. Requires 256K of memory and a color graphics adapter board.

Braille notetaker and computer display device. Includes 20-cell Braille display.

(2) Text Input Overview:

Another way of achieving Braille on a computer is to input text into the computer using the regular computer keyboard. The text is then translated into Braille for monitoring and/or outputting through the use of translation software. Several products can help the user who is visually impaired input in this way.

Keyboard labels/overlays are labels with Braille symbols on them that can be placed on individual keys on the standard computer keyboard. Here, the user is inputting text using the computer keyboard but the Braille symbols guide the user to the location of the keys through tactile recognition.

Other products which may be useful are tactile locators, stickers that can be placed strategically on the keyboard to identify important keys to facilitate positioning for touch typing or for general orientation.

Sample Products

A. Keyboard Labels/Overlays:

For IBM PC and similar keyboards. The Braille Keytop Labels are overlays for computer keyboards designed to assist individuals who are blind and read Braille to recognize the keys. These transparent adhesive labels have Braille symbols on them and may be stuck to the keytops for tactile recognition of keys.

The Brailled Keyboard Overlay for the Apple IIGS, model 1-08782-00, is a full scale Braille keytop overlay for the Apple IIGS computer keyboard with each of the keys identified in Braille. This thin flexible overlay form fits directly over IIGS keyboard and allows the computer to be used while it is in place. Can be used as a keyboard reference and has advantage of allowing user to identify keys without removing hands from keyboard. Also serves as protect helps to prevent liquid or dust from entering keyboard. Made of lightweight and durable film that allows keystrokes with gentle touch. Each key is identified in Braille (keys with long names that have been abbreviated or coded). The overlay measures approximately 15 by 4 inches and wraps snugly around the sides of the keyboard and can be secured with adhesive tape. Comes with five sets of overlays (along with a regular print and Braille guide). Recommended for 6 years and older.

For IBM PC and other 101-key keyboards. The Combination Braille/Large Print Keytop Labels are embossed keytop overlays designed to be affixed to the top of computer keyboard keys for facilitated key recognition by persons with low vision or who read Braille. the labels are adhesive-backed with Braille symbols and large print characters on them.

The Braille Keytop Kit consists of keytop labeling overlays for computer keyboards and typewriters that will assist blind individuals to learn or improve keyboarding skills more quickly and efficiently. Available for alpha, numeric, and punctuation keys.

B. Keyboard Locators:

High Dots are spongy adhesive-backed dots that can be attached to computer keyboard keys, providing tactual reference points. Each packet of dots includes 112 small dots, 48 medium dots, and 32 large dots: the largest dots are slightly smaller than a dime.

Home-Row Key Indicators are small adhesive-backed labels that can be attached to home row or any appropriate keys. A raised bump in the center of the indicator serves as a tactile guide for placing the fingers.

Adhesive-backed raised dots that can be used as reference points on all types of key buttons and knobs. Made of round clear plastic with single raised dot. Good for visually impaired and sighted person can see through clear plastic. Recommended for computer keyboards, typewriters, tape recorders, telephones, dashboards, keys on keychain, alarm clock and knobs/buttons. Manufacturer and some distributors will send free sample.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

ŠEducation Development Center, Inc.