Adding a Braille Display with NVDA

Hands reading braille on a Mantis Q40 braille display.

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Written By Cody Laplante

Cody M. Laplante is a certified Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments located in the capital region of the United States. With a Master’s Degree and Graduate Certificate in Assistive Technology, Cody founded eye.t to provide live and asynchronous training options to children, adults, professionals and parents to ensure that all people with visual impairments can have access to a computer.

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January 18, 2022

So what about braille displays? Should I buy one for my student? If so, which one? When should we use it? Is this another piece of technology that they are going to have to learn?

These are just some of the questions we regularly receive about braille displays, and yes, they can be super confusing especially when you are trying to pair one with a braille display.

In today’s email, we’ll walk through how to approach a braille display and also, how to pair one  to a computer using NVDA.

What exactly is a braille display

Contrary to popular belief, a braille display is NOT another piece of technology that your student has to learn. Braille displays are exactly as they sound they are Displays. Would you be worried if someone came into your office and changed out your desktop monitor? Would you be frustrated that you had to learn another piece of technology? No! Of course not because a display (braille or otherwise) is just a tool to help us use a computer.

“Now wait a minute”, you might be saying, “what about all those special features and all those extra buttons that come with braille displays? Don’t I have to teach those?”

Yes, over the years, braille displays have come out with a few more bells and whistles than your desktop monitor. If you do want to learn them and teach them to your learner, that is totally fine with me, just remember that it is optional. 

The primary goal of a braille display is to show you what the screen reader is saying in braille. Everything else is a bonus.

If you do choose to teach those specialty keyboard commands, here are some caveats:

  1. They often change when the display is updated.
  2. They are not universal (each braille display has their own functions and commands).
  3. You can do everything that the braille display offers on a standard QWERTY keyboard.

Ok now, let’s connect our display to the computer using NVDA.

How do I connect my braille display to the computer?

As with all of our content this month, we will be focusing on NVDA but remember, most braille displays can connect to any screen reader. For information on how to connect a display to another screen reader, take a look at your screen reader’s manual.

Setting up the Display

Each display will work a little bit differently. Some displays have other features such as note taking applications and book readers, so when you turn on your display you may need to navigate to an application that allows you to connect with a screen reader. These applications are usually called “Braille Terminal” or “Terminal Mode”. For specific information on how to set up your particular display, check your braille display’s manual.

Bluetooth or USB?

Most braille displays allow you to connect via Bluetooth or USB cable. If your learner is a young child or is just learning to use a screen reader, I highly recommend using USB. Why? Because it just makes more sense. By plugging a physical cord into a physical port, it is easier to understand that the display is actually connected to the computer. In addition, if you want to use bluetooth there are a couple of other steps you would need to take including going into the bluetooth settings of your computer and searching for the device etc. etc. If that is something you want to tackle. That’s awesome, but we will cover that in another email.

Setting up NVDA

Once your braille display is set up and that USB cord is in, make sure NVDA is turned on and soon enough, you should see braille popping up on that display. If you don’t, try restarting NVDA (NVDA key + N). If still you don’t see anything, double check your connection and double check that your display is set up and is waiting for the screen reader. If you still do not see anything, you can check a few NVDA settings.

Troubleshooting with Braille Settings

  1. Open the NVDA menu. NVDA key + N (remember NVDA key can be CapsLock or Insert depending on your settings)
  2. Go to “Settings”
  3. Go to “Preferences”
  1. Go to “Braille”
  2. In the Braille section, your default display should be set to Automatic. Next to Automatic, click “Change”. If you see the type of display you are using in the drop down menu, click it. If not, try downloading the driver from the manufacturer’s website and seeing if anything changes.
  1. If you are still having trouble, feel free to reply to this email. Remember, you can always reply here with your specific question and we will get back to you with the best response we can come up with.

Using the Braille Viewer

Finally, I wanted to show you the best tool NVDA has if you are a sighted instructor working with a student who has a braille display. It is called the braille viewer, and essentially it shows on the screen what is on the braille display in braille. 

With this tool, you can check to see if the braille is properly contracted, and if your learner needs any support in accessing something with braille. Let’s see how to open up the Braille Viewer.

  1. Open the NVDA Menu – NVDA key + N
  2. Go to “Tools”
  3. Then go to “Braille Viewer”.

Note that you can check the box on the bottom of the window so that the braille viewer opens anytime NVDA starts. 

Wrapping Up

Let’s summarize what we have learned.

  • Braille displays are just a fancy computer monitor, not an entirely different device.
  • Their primary goal is to show what the screen reader is saying in braille.
  • All of those fancy function keys they come with are just extra. You can do everything on a standard qwerty keyboard.

If you do have any questions about any of our emails you can reply and we will be happy to get back to you. Remember that we can give better responses to specific questions than we can to general questions so be as specific as you can. 

Stay tuned for next week’s email on getting started with Google Chrome and the internet. 

Have a great week and great job sticking with it to Change Your View of screen readers in 2022!

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