Testing Android: A Deaf-Blind Perspective

[Editor’s note: This guest post was written by my new friend Scott. He’s a deaf-blind technology consumer who uses computational devices via a braille interface alone. He is also an adaptive technology instructor teaching those who are deaf-blind, and a member of the AppleVis editorial Team. This post is written purely from the perspective of a consumer, and does not reflect the views of any agency or organization he is affiliated with. My own braille skills are so poor that I cannot test such interfaces myself to gather any data that may be useful to you, our loyal readers. I’m happy that Scott volunteered to write this piece and I hope he makes more contributions to this blog in the future.]

A Deaf-Blind Person’s Take on Android BrailleBack


When I first read that Google had made substantial improvements to its BrailleBack accessibility service,  I hoped  that, as a deaf-blind person who relies almost entirely on braille access, that this could be a viable option for myself. I had read various posts on Android mailing lists related to blindness regarding how TalkBack works quite well for those who are blind. While the selection of accessible apps isn’t quite what it is on iOS, I had heard it was expanding rapidly. With the lower cost for equipment, coupled with the fact that I wouldn’t need to use iTunes, this was starting to seem like an option worth considering. After the release of iOS 7, which introduced a number of  new braille bugs, I was looking for something different.

The following review is based on my use of a Nexus 7, 2013 model running Android 4.4 and the latest build of BrailleBack. The stock apps were used to conduct this evaluation, with the exception of Firefox. Many of the people I work with do not wish to configure many different options to get a system to work, so I decided to take this route when conducting this evaluation of braille. No real mention of TalkBack will be given, since a thorough review has already been written regarding its functionality in this blog

Setting up

If you wish to use braille on your Android system,,  you must first find a hearing person to install BrailleBack for you to get any sort of braille feedback. Unlike TalkBack, it does not come with the device, but  it’s a no cost download from the Google Play Store. After your hearing helper downloads BrailleBack,  they must go into settings and bluetooth to pair the braille device.
Then, the person helping the user must go to settings and accessibility and turn BrailleBack on. This is also where your hearing helper sets your braille preferences such as which table to use, braille input and output, etc. In order to use keyboard input with a supported display, you’ll need to go to Language and input settings and enable the Braille keyboard. Note that if you are able to understand the speech offered by TalkBack, you can still complete this process independently. So, for a deaf-blind user, this is not easy to do at all. Instead of just getting assistance to enable VoiceOver and
then pairing the device, you must complete all of the steps listed above to get your braille device to function. It seems more complicated than setting up braille displays with Windows, Gnome, OSX and iOS.

Using BrailleBack

Once a user has completed the setup, they can start using BrailleBack with their Android device.

Here, we’ll explore some  specific details regarding Braille Back and how it works, or in most cases, doesn’t work.

An Unfamiliar Interface

Most screen readers that interact with braille displays,  whether it’s VoiceOver with Apple, JAWS, NVDA, or any screen reader on Windows, export a fairly consistent series of keyboard commands on all braille devices. There is a published standard for braille keyboard layouts that has been accepted and, to the largest extent, implemented on virtually all systems other than Android.

For example, virtually all other braille systems allow the user to go to the top of
the current  screen, by pressing space with L, to go to the bottom, hit space with
dots 4-5-6. With BrailleBack, space Using L launches the keyboard help file, and space with 4-5-6 does nothing. One can scroll to the top of a window with some displays but not others.

Another example is that space with dot 1 on the Braille Edge will move to the previous item, but this does not work with the RefreshaBraille 18. Instead, you must use joystick left.  So in terms of navigation, you’ll need to be very aware of whichever braille device you’re using, as there appear to be some compliance, but many differences. With some basic navigation lacking on some devices, one must really be careful of which display they use if they wish to have any sort of level of productivity on the Android platform.

Why Google would reject a generally accepted standard for braille keyboard input, a standard that has been with us since before the Blazie Braille N Speak, remains an open question.

An Open Source System

The open source nature of BrailleBack ostensibly permits braille display manufacturers to customize commands for each device. This is good because it can further allow each braille display to utilize all of its unique features. However, it can also be a disadvantage as the commands are so customizable that the  functionality on BrailleBack can vary greatly from device to device. I have no information
whatsoever about how easy it is to get a manufacturer’s changes “upstream” nor do I know how much of this code was written as part of BrLTTY and how much was written by Google itself so, placing blame may be difficult.

Because it appears that developers are not following the conventional nature of keyboard command structures found in the standard, the transference of knowledge for users will go way down, and
the learning curve will be much more steep. While I do not have an issue learning different commands, I can assure you that the average user doesn’t want to have to relearn an entirely new system. This is most likely why manufacturers  of notetakers have followed what have
become a conventional set of keyboard commands first introduced in the original Braille N Speak, nearly 2 decades ago. If the user wishes to learn the new command structure, will they be successful? More aptly, why expose an unfamiliar interface without publishing a reason for
making such UI decisions?

access to Books

The news for those wishing to read books in braille using BrailleBack is not good. Whether it’s Google Playbooks, Kindle, or the Nook app, while menus are manageable to some degree in that they are mostly labeled, once you open a book, even though TalkBack will read Google Play books and Nook books, neither app will display the contents of these books in braille so are entirely useless for deaf-blind users.


Email also has an issue similar to what you find when trying to read books in braille. You can access the menus for the gmail app, but you cannot actually read the contents of messages. Editing of text when replying to messages works fine, and I was able to send messages successfully. Forwarding messages also works, but scrolling down to read the original  message content still is not possible with BrailleBack. To a braille user who can have this access on either the Windows Surface Pro or any of the supported iDevices, this makes Android a very unattractive option.

[Editor’s note: Please do not send in the most standard of all Android accessibility excuses. Namely, that Android is “younger” than iOS and hasn’t had the time to catch up yet. As Chris posted in the corrected version of “I Give Up,” Android is exactly 1.24 years newer than iOS which would suggest that, if this is a valid idea, it should be up to par with iOS 6 which, regarding braille, it falls far short of.]

Issues Specific To One Who Is Deaf-Blind

On top of what I’ve said thus far, , which I would describe as far less than substandard support for braille, there remains another issue for those who are deaf-blind: TalkBack uses sounds to convey certain types of information that are neither conveyed in speech nor in braille. For the braille user who cannot hear these sounds, they are left without any way to access this information. Blind people who can hear enjoy TV Raman’s “earcons” but, we who are deaf-blind, get no equivalent in BrailleBack.

Some users may enjoy that  BrailleBack does not display just one item on a line. For example, if on a screen such as in the Mail app, several options may appear at once. Pressing a cursor routing button will activate any of these items. This is good in terms of being able to activate items quickly, but could be an issue in certain apps where things are not labeled as buttons, headings , links, etc as one can easily activate a control without wanting to.

Web Browsing

With web browsing using Firefox, activating links, moving by headings, typing text into a search field, etc, all work fine only using braille, thus offering a pleasant web browsing experience.  Most content is readable with web pages, and it’s the one area where I feel like a braille user can actually have a chance of using an Android device effectively.

Reactions to Criticism of Android Accessibility

Many people have criticized those who do not like Android by stating that if you’re looking for the user experience found on iOS, you won’t have it. If by a similar user experience these people  mean that I’d like to read my email and some books, they’re right. I do expect to be able to conduct basic functions in some way or another just like I would be able to on any other number of devices. It’s not that the new way of operating the device intimidates me, it’s that the option simply doesn’t exist. The same goes for the new Kindle HDX which runs off of a modified version of the Android operating system. The Kindle is, primarily a book reader, and this part of the hardware is not accessible to braille users. That’s right, you can’t read books on the eBook reader from the bookseller in braille.

While many of those who are blind may consider braille a luxury, for some, it’s a necessity. One may ask whether braille users are even worth considering, since they make up such a small amount of the population. Is there money to be made off such a market? Apple clearly seems to think so, as do most screen reader manufacturers on the Windows platform. There is also a developing push for braille literacy in the field of education. My question to Google is, do you want a stake in the education market? If so, you may wish to give braille access some further effort. More importantly, though, if you hope to “do no evil” you might consider the evil of discrimination against
people like me and, using a universal design approach, allow me to enjoy your products as fully as anyone else.

Many deaf-blind people, the people who absolutely must use braille to access a computer,  won’t even consider Android as an option at this point, because there is little to no accessibility functionality for this population. While the screen customization may be good for low vision users, it doesn’t help those who require braille.


In conclusion, I’m sad to have to report such negative findings with regard to braille access on the nexus 7. As someone who would like to have choices, and who is very passionate about using technology to help level the playing field for those with disabilities, I am very disappointed in the small amount of braille access offered by BrailleBack. I hope that the developers at Google will work to make this more of a comprehensive option, so that braille users like myself are one day able to actually use the technology as effectively as our hearing blind and sighted counterparts.

Published by

Chris Hofstader

I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I podcast for Pod Delusion, , blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort.

4 thoughts on “Testing Android: A Deaf-Blind Perspective”

  1. Hi,
    I do see the issues with web views and books, I also had trouble navigating with my display (Brailliant bI 40) if talkback is off. However, over all I find myself liking the android braille experience better than iOS. I use both OS’s daily, one on an iPod, the other on an S4. For some reasons, I’m experiencing serious issues getting the display to connect to my iPod touch 5, and it takes multiple reboots for it to recognise it. I am a bit disappointed that braille on iOS shows only one control t a time, it’s definitely a loss of relistate especially in places like the home screen or a group of tabs, which isn’t a problem on the mac. Another problem is that iOS braille isn’t very configurable – you can’t change how long the flash messages appear for, and since some iOS version, not sure which, you’re now stuck to reading and writing braille in whatever your system language is. So, if I want to get access to the Polish braille tables, I need to switch iOS completely over to Polish which I may not always want. So, both platforms have issues and it’s up to the user to figure out which ones they find more annoying. We can only hope they will improve over time and get better. :)

    1. Hello. I doscovered quite by accident that in iOS the way to control the length of time the display messages show up can be changed by the speech output rate. So, if you want a longer display time, slow down the speech. It works this way on iOS 7.0.4 in any case. Regarding Scott’s post in general, I’m a deaf-blind assistive technology trainer as well and can duplicate his findings using a Focus 40 Blue display with a stock Android nexus 7 2013 model tablet.

  2. Hi Piotr, and thank you for your comment.
    Certainly, the Apple platforms are not without their limitations, as you have outlined above. There are others, like some of the keyboard commands being broken in both Mac OSX 10.8 and 10.9, as well as in iOS 7. Also the fact that the virtual keyboard on iOS often gets in the way of navigating around screens where there are text fields. However, this post was describing how someone who doesn’t have the ability to use speech would run the system. And while some inconveniences exist on both the Windows and Apple ecosystems, these are minor in comparison to the shortcomings of Android. Of course, this excludes Windows Phone 7 and 8 entirely, as those are just as useless to you as they are to me. I can, for example, use braille on an iDevice to recognize currency, read books from multiple eBook sources, read my email, recognize images, and so on and so forth. These tasks, as far as I know, are not achievable on the Android operating system. They are, to a large extent, also available through different software on a Windows 8 tablet.
    I’m not here to complain so much as I am to help spread the awareness of braille only users who rely more on technology to stay connected to the world around them than the average user does. When you can’t turn on the radio to listen to the news, you can’t access the phone system directly which is often offset by email and text messaging, and you cannot hear to communicate with a sighted and hearing person— technology is the only real link. With that in mind, I’d love to be able to use Android somehow to achieve these types of things. IN its current form, deaf-blind people who require braille access simply cannot do so. I hope this will one day change, and I can write a much more positive review of the operating system.

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