New USB Standard Aims to Make it Easier to Use Braille Displays Across Different Operating Systems and Hardware

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the support organization for the advancement and adoption of USB technology, has today announced a new USB HID (Human Interface Device) industry standard that aims to simplify the development of braille displays and allow for an improved user experience.

In it's press release, USB-IF describes this new standard as:

a collaborative step toward greater technological accessibility for people who are blind or have low vision. The standard will make it easier to use a braille display across operating systems and different types of hardware. It will also simplify development, removing the need for braille devices to have custom software and drivers created for a particular operating system or screen reader.

“This is another great example of how USB-IF device class specifications can improve people’s lives,” said USB-IF President and COO Jeff Ravencraft. “With more than 1000 members worldwide, USB-IF brings companies together to improve access to technology and provide a seamless user experience.”

Both Apple and Microsoft have been involved in the drafting of this standard, with Sarah Herrlinger, director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives at Apple, quoted as saying that “we’re proud to advance this new USB-IF standard because we believe in improving the experience for all people who rely on braille displays to use their Apple products or any other device.”

Jeff Petty, Windows accessibility program manager lead at Microsoft, is quoted as saying that “developing a HID standard for braille displays is one example of how we can work together, across the industry, to advance technology in a way that benefits society and ultimately improve the unemployment rate for people with disabilities.”

The press release gives no information regarding the timeframe for roll-out of this new standard or its reception and adoption by braille display makers, but it clearly has the potential to significantly improve the setup and use of Braille displays, going beyond what is already offered by Made for iPhone and iOS compatible devices.

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#1 My thoughts

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

I was very happy to see this Standard pass a couple of Fridays ago and was waiting for it to be publicly announced before commenting. I realize that some may feel this could potentially be a step backward, since the overall trend is to provide a wireless experience for all connected devices. However, I would like to explain one of the benefits of the adoption of this standard as it relates to emergency communications and, specifically, Apple products. I will also explain the potential benefits as they relate to our multi-platform society.

As many of you know, and as outlined in this guide iOS connectivity with a braille display is dependent on a Bluetooth connection. What this means is that if you are someone who does not have enough vision or hearing to see the screen or hear VoiceOver, you will be unable to connect your braille device independently. Further, if the Bluetooth pairing fales, unless you can reestablish this connection through restarting both devices, you have no recourse to make that connection work again. One of the great things about the Mac is that a DeafBlind user is not limited to Bluetooth connectivity. They can simply press Command F5 to turn on VoiceOver, plug in their braille display to a USB port, and they're off and running. This new USB standard, if adopted by both the manufacturers of assistive technology and mainstream devices, has the potential to bring this same reliability to mobile platforms. As the development of Real-Time Text continues, which will replace obsolete TTY technology for those who are DeafBlind, it is crucial for this population to have reliable access to the phone system. Reliability is important for social reasons, but even more so, to be able to contact emergency services when a crisis happens. While Bluetooth is convenient, this standard is a major step in the right direction to offer those who cannot reconnect their devices via Bluetooth independently a fall-back option.

Many of the issues I see across platforms for users of braille displays relate to inconsistencies of the availability of commands with different devices. While iOS provides a fairly consistent set of options for braille display users, that is not the case with all screen readers on different operating systems. Android is a fragmented operating system in general, but even more so where it concerns support for braille displays. For example, some navigational commands on Android that are available with one model of display may not be found on another. The same is true on Windows when running different braille displays on NVDA and JAWS. By having a standard available, I hope that there will be more consistency not only in terms of the availability of specific options for braille display users, but also some consistency in the way that these commands are carried out with different braille devices. There are many things one can say about having technology available, but the technology is only as good as the people who understand how to use it effectively. Providing a more consistent experience for braille users with this standard will allow for a learning curve that is less steep for the average user. Further, it will also take some of the mystery out of what is and isn’t supported with each configuration a person may run. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I feel this new standard has the potential to create a very positive future for those who rely on braille displays to interact with their technology.

#2 Re: My thoughts

Thanks for your post. I could be mistaken, but it is my understanding that this new standard just relates to the actual hardware connection between the display and the computer or mobile device. I think command uniformity is a great goal and certainly something we, as consumers of this technology, should push for, but I don't believe it is addressed in the USB HID standard. I also don't believe this will have much of an impact on iDevices as none of them have USB ports, unless Apple announces something pretty significant with the iPhone eleven.
This standard will, hopefully, make connecting a braille display to a Windows-based computer as easy as it is to connect it to a Mac. I see that NVDA is already talking about auto-detection of braille displays, so this may be hinting at things to come.
Just my thoughts, thanks again for your post.

#3 Plug and Play Support

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hi Jim. I will have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. According to this Mac Rumors article my interpretation of the standard isn't going too far. In fact, I am quite confident that at least Apple and NV-Access will be supporting the standard as long as the braille display manufacturers do their part. With iOS, the connection would happen with the Lightning port. Apple already sells Lightning to USBC cables, and the Focus 5th generation already uses USB-C to connect for charging and use with the Mac and PC. Some Android phones are also using USB-C, so I am pretty confident in saying this will happen to some extent. Also remember that there are many MFI accessories that utilize the lightning port for a hardwire connection.