Dave Williams, Chairman of the Braillists, explored how to use braille displays with various combinations of screen reader and web browser, unpicked some of the jargon that appears on the display, and explained how to navigate without a QWERTY keyboard or touch screen.
Braille Displays and Other Products from Computer Room Services (Episode 30)
How many listeners remember Talks? The popular screen reader for Series 60 and other phones running the Symbian operating system. It first came to the market in the early 2000s, and perhaps its most well-known proponent in the UK was Steve Nutt, the man behind Computer Room Services. His expertise when it comes to mobile phones is unparalleled and, unphased by the slow demise of Symbian, he’s now just as well-known for his knowledge of Android.
There’s more to Steve than phones though. His company offers assistive technology training and consultancy; braille transcription; and sells a wide range of products including digital audio recorders, talking gadgets, talking book machines, speech synthesizers and other assistive software and, most notably for this podcast, an assortment of braille products. In addition to flagship displays from VisioBraille and Esys, he also sells the full range of leather cases from Executive Products, including a case for the popular Orbit Reader 20.
Most of us know about grade 2, of course, with its 180 contractions designed to make braille quicker to read and write and occupy less space.
Grade 3 extends this concept still further with over 300 additional contractions, rules to allow vowells to be omitted, and provisions for reducing spaces and new lines. Whilst it’s not an officially recognised code, it has a loyal following amongst long-time braillists, who have used it very successfully to take shorthand notes or transcribe passages of text for reading aloud. It’s especially useful in conjunction with a hand frame or slate and stylus.
James Bowden led a session exploring this code in more detail on Tuesday 20 July. Whilst he wasn’t able to cover all of the 300+ contractions in an hour, he did explain the concepts used to form them, introduce some of the most useful ones and the rules which govern their use, and signposted to resources with more information.
Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Teaching Braille but were Too Scared to Ask (Episode 29)
“Most of us who know braille were taught it.” It sounds like such an obvious statement – so obvious, in fact, that it seems appropriate to conclude that the world has an abundance of braille teachers, and the methods and techniques that they use are mature, uniform and understood by everyone working in the field. Presumably, approaches that work well have been iterated over time, those that haven’t worked so well have been abandoned, and the entire process has been well-documented so that future teachers can learn from the mistakes of the past.
The reality is less clearly defined, although certain concepts which have withstood the test of time especially well have become accepted as common knowledge. Pre-braille skills, for instance, feature regularly in discussions about teaching braille, as do the differences between learning braille by touch and by sight and teaching braille to children and adults.
On Tuesday 29 June 2021, we explored this topic in more detail in a live panel discussion with three braille teachers:
Christine Williams recently retired from Exhall Grange Specialist School and Science College in Coventry, where she held the post of Lead Teacher of the Visually Impaired. In that capacity, she taught braille not only to the pupils at Exhall Grange, but also peripatetically to pupils of all ages in mainstream schools throughout Warwickshire (via the Vision Support Service). Prior to this, she taught French at Exhall Grange for a number of years, where braille also played a significant role. In her retirement, she teaches braille voluntarily at Coventry Resource Centre for the Blind, predominantly to adults who are losing or in danger of losing their sight.
Melanie Pritchard has an extensive background in teaching braille to adults, either with visual impairments themselves or who are sighted friends or relatives of people with a visual impairment. Most recently, she taught the Braille For Beginners course remotely for the Braillists Foundation.
In Using Braille on Windows, we introduced you to the basics of making a braille display work with various screen readers. In this session, we took this to the next level in the first of an occasional series of Masterclasses looking at the braille settings of a particular screen reader.
This time it was JAWS. There are lots of settings and we weren’t able to cover all of them in an hour, so instead we reviewed some of the most common questions we’re asked, found the settings that relate to them, and explained what they do.
Adding and selecting your braille display
Choosing your braille code and grade
Status cells and their use in structured mode
Reversing panning buttons and panning by paragraph
Xia Leon Sloane on Studying Composition and a Commission for the BBC Proms (Episode 28)
We’re almost exactly a month away from the opening night of the BBC Proms, the world famous summer season of concerts of classical music founded in 1895. Since their infancy, they’ve championed the composition and performance of new works of music through various channels including, latterly, the BBC Young Composer competition.
In 2018, one of the winners of this competition was blind composer Xia Leon Sloane, who describe themselves as “a writer of words and music, with a particular interest in the way that art can respond to political and ecological ideas”. Their choral piece, Earthward, subsequently received its world premier by vocal ensemble VOCES8 at a prom at Cadogan Hall on 22 July 2019.
Xia first undertook composition lessons at the age of 12 and, at time of publication, they’ve just finished their final year of undergraduate study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Much of their composition emerges from their spiritual practice and their own responses to world affairs.
Blind since the age of 2, they’re an advanced braillist and a prolific user of braille music. We spoke with them in February about their braille music journey, and what it was like to have a score that originated in braille performed by sighted musicians in front of a live audience of nearly a thousand, and a radio audience of hundreds of thousands more.
The Most Inexpensive Braille Reading Setup in the World? Introducing Braille on the Amazon Fire Tablet (Extra 27)
Over the years, blind people have benefitted from incredible enhancements in the fields of electronic braille and accessibility in general. In fact, it’s now possible to purchase a fully accessible Amazon Fire tablet for under £50 which, pared with an inexpensive braille display such as an Orbit Reader, and Amazons Kindle store which offers access to quite literally hundreds of thousands of digital books, makes for an incredibly cost-effective braille reading setup. But how does it work?
In this masterclass, presented by Ben Mustill-Rose, we provided a general overview of the Fire tablet, the basics of setting it up, how to connect a braille display and how to navigate the device using it. We then purchased a book from the Kindle store and walked through how to read it on a braille display.
The Clearvision Project and the Typhlo and Tactus International Tactile Book Competition (Episode 27)
Parents reading with their children: it’s an experience common to many households in virtually every country of the world. It’s a uniquely special experience for both the parent and the child, remembered for years to come, and often relived as children become parents themselves, and parents become grandparents.
For many blind people in the UK, it’s been facilitated for decades by the Clearvision project and its collection of over 14,000 books, each designed in such a way as to simultaneously enable blind and sighted people to read and enjoy them.
This week’s Masterclass has a more low tech flavour as we take a wander into the heart of the household. If you’ve ever wondered how to read braille recipes without ruining them or what to do when the label is too big for the jar, this session is for you.
Emma Williams led the session – teacher of Independent Living Skills at New College Worcester, and a familiar voice to many from our Clever Cooking events last year. She drew on a wealth of personal experience of using braille in the kitchen, as well as things which have worked well (and maybe some which haven’t) for her peers and her students.