The Apple Braille Crisis. It’s Got to be Fixed for the Kids

People from all walks of life, not just blind people, can get extremely partisan about their technology preferences. Anything their team does is unquestionably wonderful, while anything another company does is rubbish, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s the other guys who did it. If you criticise the company such people support, you’ve committed heresy.

As blind people, I don’t believe we have the luxury of being so childish. Unemployment is high. Misconceptions abound regarding how capable we can be in the workplace, and in society as a whole. We need to be open to all solutions, and where possible, use the best mix of technology we can to be as productive, functional and self-reliant as we can.

To be clear, I have enormous admiration for the way Apple has changed the game in assistive technology. When they released VoiceOver in 2009, I was concerned that Apple might do just enough to get people off its back regarding the inaccessibility of the iPhone. But that has not been the case. With every release, Apple has added tangible enhancements such as alternative forms of input, innovative ways for us to use the camera, and so much more. So Apple’s commitment to accessibility is real, its ongoing, and it has earned enormous praise and respect.

Is there a “but” coming? Yes, there is, actually., because being grateful for a product doesn’t mean we don’t have rights as paying consumers to point out where a product falls short. But more than that, if Apple’s innovations risk killing off a category of product, and the literacy of our kids is threatened, we have a moral obligation to speak up constructively and ask Apple to engage with us as a community about fixing the issue.

The Internet is buzzing with reports of bugs in iOS 7. I’m not unduly concerned about most of these, because I believe the majority of them will come out in the wash. iOS 7 was a massive refactoring of the OS. I hope that there’ll be fixes released steadily across the coming year.

However, I am deeply troubled by Apple’s ongoing apparent failure to understand what constitutes Braille support of an appropriate quality. We’re not talking bugs in this case, we’re talking a fundamental user interface failure –  a feature not fully fit for purpose.

Since Braille was introduced in iOS, it has supported contracted Braille in English markets. This is a means by which space is saved, and speed increased, by using a series of symbols and abbreviations. When one reads contracted Braille in iOS, it works quite well. When one writes it, it is the worst implementation of contracted input I’ve ever used on any device.

Since its inception, if you input a letter in contracted Braille which would be the abbreviation for a word if surrounded by spaces, iOS expands the word it represents if you pause for a short time before inputting the next character. For example, write “p” and it will quickly be expanded to the word “people”. If you are proofing a document you’ve brailled and wish to insert a letter in the middle of a word, you must preface the letter with a letter sign, dots 5-6, to prevent it from being expanded. This is not in accordance with the Braille code and is simply wrong.

Apple must surely know about this poor implementation. It’s been talked about in many forums, including an excellent presentation by Judy Dixon at the CSUN Technology Conference on Persons with Disabilities. I, and I’m sure others, have also raised it.

It’s also evident that Apple knows about the issues, because to its credit, it appears to at least have made an effort to try and fix the problem in iOS 7. It now offers an “Automatic Braille Translation” toggle. This feature is so below par compared with most of the design of all other VoiceOver features, that it must surely be the case that Apple is getting no advice, or poor advice, from anyone actually using Braille in their daily life.

When you toggle “Automatic Braille Translation” off, you can take as long as you wish when inputting characters, and they’re not back-translated. Isn’t that what we want? Well yes, it would appear to be a step in the right direction. Except when you use it, you find that Braille is not readable on the display until you either press the space bar, or dots 4-5-cord. Why Apple believes this is acceptable, I have no idea. Can you imagine a sighted person finding it acceptable in any other scenario other than password entry, to not be able to look at what they’re entering until they press “Space”?

But it’s worse than that. If you backspace over what you’ve typed, you run into back-translation issues similar to those experienced when automatic translation is set to on.

Additionally, having to press dots 4-5-cord after inserting a letter in the middle of a word is counterintuitive, and again, an implementation far more primitive than anything else that offers contracted input. Apple seems to have implemented a pretty crude buffer, that is simply dumped when you type one of two commands to empty it. That is not a solution.

The Braille implementation in iOS does not meet the “it’s intuitive and it just works” test that has been the hallmark of Apple products including VoiceOver.

Now if it were just about us as Braille reading adults, I wouldn’t bother writing this post. It would get on my nerves, but I’d continue to work around it and just put it down to a bizarre, less than optimal implementation. I’m not writing this for me. I’m not asking blind people, and the world’s consumer organisations, to come together on this for me or people like me. I’m writing this for the kids. It’s the kids who matter.

If you’re a Braille user, you’ll have seen the implementation of Nemeth in iOS 7. It’s there because Apple’s going after the education market, particularly in the US. Good for Apple. I can see enormous benefit in a kid being given an iPad and a Braille display for use at home and in school. Don’t underestimate how mainstream tech can be a great way to help blind kids blend in with sighted kids. Parents feel more empowered, because the iPad is technology they know and understand, so when the child gets in trouble at home, they can help out. Classroom teachers in mainstream schools know what an iPad is as well and feel similarly empowered.

But all of these benefits have to be secondary considerations to the one that matters above all else, – equipping our kids with good Braille literacy skills. Braille is their ticket to higher education. Braille offers a greater chance of  gainful employment. Braille is absolutely critical, and Braille is not to be trifled with. Half-baked Braille solutions are not appropriate for our kids when there’s a crisis in getting Braille instruction to them already.

We should not expect our kids to have to learn to work-around Apple’s poor implementation, we should expect Apple to fix its Braille.

For the last 20 years or so, blind kids have increasingly used proprietary notetaker technology. I’ve no problem whatsoever with technology moving on, and a category of product becoming obsolete. I love the idea of investing in a good Braille display that will last you for years, and upgrading the technology that drives the display on a more regular basis. But that technology has to do the Braille properly.

There are cost savings to be made by cash-strapped agencies who purchase equipment for blind children, and that’s also why I’m writing this post. I can see bean-counters concluding that the combination of an iPad and a Braille display is a good solution for kids now. Many of these purchasers are not Braille users themselves, and I believe we have a duty of care to our kids to spread the word that Apple is not there yet. It is trying, and should be applauded for doing so, but still, it’s not there.

You will remember the huge backlash caused by the initial release of Apple Maps in iOS 6. In terms of fitness for purpose, Apple Maps was far superior at release than Braille is now. The only difference is that Braille affects a tiny fraction of Apple’s user-base, not hundreds of millions of people.

Lest anyone think I’m whining without a solution, I actually know a lot about this subject, having worked as a product manager with a range of products that use contracted Braille. I have a good feel for where Apple has got it wrong and what it might do to fix it, while not of course being familiar with the VoiceOver code. But I am absolutely confident that it’s fixable. Let’s not forget, Apple invented a way for blind people to make effective use of touch screens. Apple gave us unimagined access to taking photos. It is certainly not beyond Apple to look at best practice and figure this one out, because unlike some of the other things it’s done, the solutions already exist.

If this poor-quality support had been offered to us by an assistive technology company, we’d have jumped all over it long before now. But given that Apple develops screen readers, that makes it both a mainstream technology company, and an assistive technology company. We should hold it to no less a standard.

Having outlined the problem, here’s what I think needs to happen.

Typically, I’d suggest that Apple needs to engage with the community with a view to fixing these issues for the sake of our kids, but that’s not really been its style. It is secretive by nature. In that case then, it needs to buy the expertise to make Braille truly viable in the education market.

As Braille readers, we need to politely articulate the problems to Apple, and let Apple know we consider it important that they are fixed.

Consumer organisations should do what they’ve done so many times before, and focus on their unity when it comes to Braille issues. A broad-coalition of consumers, educators and parents needs to ensure this issue is not allowed to drop.

And finally, no one in charge of any purse strings should consider it an appropriate solution to give a kid an iPad in the classroom if they’re a Braille user. If purchasers want to move away from the blindness notetaker, and I get that, a laptop and Braille display is a far better solution in terms of Braille reliability and consistency.

I’ll be the first to cheer loudly, and sing Apple’s praises, if it fixes its Braille. And I’ll continue to praise all it has done right, which I often do in media interviews and blindness tech forums. But please, for the sake of the kids, lets do what we need to do to advocate for good quality Braille on Apple devices. We have a duty to the next generation to do no less.

I’ve done what I can as an individual to make Apple aware of these failings, but clearly, we need to do more to help it gain an appreciation of why this is so important.

8 Comments on “The Apple Braille Crisis. It’s Got to be Fixed for the Kids

  1. I agree with all of the comments in this post. Yes, IOS7 accessibility is to be highly commended in the main, but also yes the Braille grade 2 support is at best pathetic and unacceptable.
    As a totally blind person who’s used braille all of my life, and more importantly as a Braille professional involved in helping blind people acquire and use Braille display technology, I share the concerns expressed.
    I spend a lot of time working with and talking with education proffessionals and visually impaired kids. In the UK in you walk into almost any class room these days one of the most prolific devices is an IPad. So, if that is the case, which it is, Apple need to be ensuring that Blind kids can work effectively using Braille with such devices.
    Finally there’s another section of the visually impaired community who want to embrace apple but who, with this poor level of braille support cannot easily and effectively do this. This is the Deaf Blind community. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past 12 months working with a couple of deaf blind people who have IPhones and Ipads and who, because of the poorly orchestrated braille support really struggle to work efficiently.
    So, yes, this is a very important issue which Apple need to address effectively quickly and if necessary take advice from people who understand what needs to be done to turn what is unacceptable and unworkable into something that is paralel to the speech output access currently availabel within IOS.

  2. I too largely agree with all of this. However, I would say one thing slightly differently. I believe that Apple actually need to have a braillist in their staff, yes, employed, to oversee the effectiveness of the braille support, and this could easily be extended to Voice Over as a whole. We, as a community, need to be much more active in insisting that things that are done for us are done by us, or at least involve us in that process. Yes, buying the expertise would seem a sensible step, but only if we are actually represented in whatever they buy. We are also forgetting the issue of employment in general, where the same issues apply. We really must be campaigning for involvement in such matters, not just the provision of such services. To be clear, though, I’m not asking for a democracy here, Apple’s expertise, in so many areas, out-strips what most people would think possible, and I continue to applaud them for this

  3. Well said, Jonathan. Frankly I didn’t know about this problem. I have an old guy’s tendency to still be back at the question of whether the user interface, touch screens and gesturing, is such a great thing. Not only that, but regular access to a Braille display as such, is a luxury. Your voice is respected, others who have replied lend credibility to your pleas for this problem to be addressed, so good for you. Apple needs to hear consumers and do the right thing too, no matter how wildly popular they are.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I am a relative late-comer to the Apple community and still have mixed feelings about embracing it whole-heartedly. Much of this has to do with the fact that I still must rely on Windows PCs for my needs regarding braille, especially where support of additional languages is concerned. I don’t think that Apple has yet gotten the insight that we are a very diverse group of people who use computers in numerous ways they can perhaps not imagine. Making accessibility work means making it flexible, and that includes braille support… A company like Freedom Scientific or Window Eyes did not just decide to throw some braille support into their product. It was a dedicated effort.

    I have very mixed feelings about IPADs, etc, for kids. Certainly, I have known teenagers who are using them well. But in the hands of a young child…? This is a very serious issue, and I think that in addition to the issue of the questionable braille support it is worth asking whether a child so young is ready to handle that interface and all the social networking issues that go with having this device in their hands. Apple’s new TOS is very strict, and imho teachers need to think seriously before sending that device home.

  5. The technical solution to at least one of the problems described here is straightforward, if somewhat inefficient: back-translate the whole string every time a change is made. On newer iOS devices, at least, the processor should be up to the task.

  6. Although I fully agree with the request for proper braille support, I can’t understand why grade 2 is so important. Always thought it was a way of avoiding wasting paper. Ever since I learned to use a type writer or qwerty keyboard I have forgotten about grade 2 and have never missed it. I don’t think there is any reason for kids to learn grade 2, just like there is no good reason for sighted people to learn any form of compressed writing. If Apple would only give me the option to insert an @ sign in my tekst without switching to the touch screen or switching input language first.

  7. It was extremely interesting to read this post on so many levels. As someone who uses braille every day, I experience the frustrations you observe in your post. As the current chair of the World Blind Union’s World Braille Council and President of the International Council on English braille, I am going to bring some political pressure to resolve the issues. Thanks for such a clear exposition of the position and I will contact you to seek your support.

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