Before We Begin
Starting in iOS8, you can write braille on your iOS device, similar to apps like MBraille or Braille Touch. The difference is that this is global, available anywhere you have a keyboard. No switching apps and pasting text, you simply use braille instead of the on-screen keyboard. If you prefer to listen, you can hear an audio demonstration of braille input in iOS8 here. Note that, though this podcast was made under iOS 8, its content is still relevant to more modern iOS versions. The only difference now is that VoiceOver can echo contracted input as you type, if you want it to.
While this new braille input system is a wonderful feature, it does have a few caveats you need to know about. Note that I assume you are already familiar with braille, and the basic VoiceOver gestures of swiping with one or more fingers and double tapping to activate items.
Setting It Up
Enabling Braille Screen Input
When you first set up a new iOS device with iOS8 or later, braille will not be available by default. You can easily enable it, though: open the Settings app, go to General, then Accessibility, then VoiceOver, then Rotor. Find the "Braille screen input" option and double tap to select it (if it is already selected for some reason, simply leave it alone). Once it is selected, you are set to start using braille input.
The position of this rotor item matters. If you move it to the very top of the rotor items list, it will always appear to the right of whichever rotor item you are currently on. This makes it quick to switch to so you can start typing without needing to move through a bunch of rotor items first; a clockwise rotor movement and you're in braille. If you want to leave braille input in a specific place in your rotor, you need only move it to the desired position. If you always want it to come after the "characters" option, for instance, drag it just under "characters". So long as it's not at the top of the list, it will stay where you put it.
Setting Your Default Code
To choose the default braille table, contracted status, or 8 dot braille (iPad only), follow the below steps. Remember that you can change the code in use with a three-finger swipe right or left while you are using the on-screen braille keyboard; these instructions are to set the code used when you first switch to braille.
- Open Settings, then go to General, Accessibility, VoiceOver, Braille (note that this is not the Braille option in the rotor)
- Find the "Braille Screen Input" button, which will have the currently selected code after it. Double tap this button.
- You are now in a screen where all the available input codes are presented. Choose from "uncontracted 6 dot braille", "uncontracted 8 dot braille" (iPad only), or "contracted braille", then activate the "Back" button.
Now that you've set your default input type, make sure the translation table is correct. I am in the United States, so I can't speak to how this will work in other locales. Here, we have UEB, U.S. English (what many call Grade II), or UK English for contracted braille tables. The default seems to be UEB, what iOS calls "English (Unified)", which I prefer. Many people don't know UEB, though, and will want to change to a different option. Fortunately, doing so is simple. Note that this will set the braille translation table, which is not changed with the three-finger swipe gesture like contracted/uncontracted braille is. In other words, you can turn contractions on or off at any time, but the table used to interpret your contractions will remain set until you decide to change it by following the below steps.
- From VoiceOver's braille settings screen (see the previous section on setting your input code), choose "Braille Translation".
- The resulting screen lists all the available codes for your region. Simply double tap the one you want, and you're done.
Setting the amount of feedback you hear while typing braille is done the same way you'd set feedback for on-screen or bluetooth keyboards: select 'Typing Feedback' from VoiceOver's settings, and choose an option under the "braille screen input" heading. Your choice will not affect the feedback VoiceOver provides for other onscreen keyboards or hardware keyboards..
To use the braille keyboard, you must be on the home screen, on some HTML content (such as a webpage), or editing a text field. If any of these is true, turn your rotor to "braille screen input". Your device will switch to landscape mode if it is in portrait, and you can begin.
you will be told the input mode (see below), the type of braille in use (6 dot, 8 dot, or contracted), and the fact that your device is now in landscape mode. If you have VoiceOver set to speak hints, which is the default setting, you are also told which side your Home button is now on and "to calibrate braille dots, place the first three fingers of first your left hand, then your right, on the screen." (For iPad users, the calibration command is touching all eight fingers to the screen twice quickly.) This calibration step is not necessary--you can begin brailling straight away. If you find your input to be inaccurate, though, calibrating once or twice can be extremely useful.
If the iOS device is relatively flat, such as on a table, it will default to "tabletop mode". On an iPhone 6 or smaller, this means that the dots are laid out in a sort of flattened V shape. For the iPhone 6 Plus, and any iPad, all six dots will be side by side. Anyone who has used a Perkins braille writer will find this arrangement very familiar. Also, I have tried this on an iPhone 6 (not the Plus), and could have my fingers almost side by side with no problem. Your milage may vary, though, depending on the size of your hands. The dot arrangement is a much easier straight line on iPads and the iPhone 6 Plus, making those devices very comfortable to type on.
If your device is closer to being on its side, it will be in "screen away mode", with the dots along the two shorter edges of the screen. In this mode, hold your device with your thumbs on top, near the volume buttons, your pinkies on the opposite side, and your hands curved so the other three fingers of each hand rest on the screen, perpendicular to the long edges. It takes some practice, but you will eventually be able to use this mode without muffling the speaker--a definite possibility on the iPhone or iPod Touch--by relying on your fingers to steady your device, not your palms.
One problem some people run into is getting Tabletop Mode into the correct orientation. Often, when it is first activated, the dots are flipped around, with dots 3 and 6 closest to you. To fix this, simply angle your device so it enters Away mode, but be sure the screen is facing toward you, not away from you as though you were going to type on it. Once you hear "Away mode" while the screen is facing you, put the device back into Tabletop Mode and you should find the orientation to now be correct. It may sound like a lot to go through, but it's really a quick rotation toward you and then flat again, and you'll hardly think about it after a while.
In either mode, your index fingers are dots 1 and 4, your middle fingers are 2 and 5, and your ring fingers are 3 and 6. Some people may want to flip the dots as MBraille allows, so 1 and 4 are on the bottom instead of the top. If you are on iOS10 or newer, you can do this in VoiceOver's settings; open the Braille settings and choose to reverse the orientation.
Here are the gestures you can use while in braille input mode:
- one-finger swipe right: space
- one-finger swipe left: delete most recent character (you cannot swipe left and hold to keep deleting)
- one-finger swipe up/down: access typing suggestions, apps that match what you've typed if on a Home Screen, or move by the HTML element whose first letter you entered (webpages/HTML content only)
- two-finger swipe left: delete previous word (iOS8.3 or above). Note that, in contracted mode, this erases the last translated word along with anything you've typed but not yet translated; in six dot mode, it erases back to the previous space or new line since there's no translation to worry about.
- two-finger swipe right: new line
- two-finger swipe down: immediately translate current word (contracted mode only)
- two-finger scrub: exit Braille Screen Input mode
- two-finger rotor left/right: choose another rotor setting, which will exit Braille Screen Input
- three finger swipe left/right: toggle between contracted and uncontracted (called "six dot") braille (on iPads, eight dot braille is also an option)
- hold a finger on the screen: enter "explore mode", where you can move a finger around to find the different dots' positions
- Three-finger swipe up or down: lock or unlock orientation, letting you keep using Tabletop or Away mode no matter the orientation of your device
Finding Apps With Braille
Similar to the handwriting feature introduced in iOS7, you can use braille to search for apps. On any home screen, rotor to braille and begin typing the name of the app you want. As you type, VoiceOver will announce how many matches it has found. To browse them, flick up or down with a finger, then flick right with two fingers--the "enter" gesture--to open an app once you hear it.
Note that the three-finger swipe left or right to change input grade does not work here. You are in six-dot entry by default and cannot change that.
As mentioned, braille input can be used anywhere an on-screen keyboard is present. However, the braille keyboard does not include any editing or selection commands except deleting by character or word, nor does it offer commands to review what you have written. For both of these functions, use the rotor or a two-finger scrub to exit braille input mode, then the normal VoiceOver gestures to review, select, or edit your text.
The suggestions you get as you type are not the same as the suggestions offered by iOS' predictive typing feature. Instead, they are based, as far as I can tell, on common braille mistakes and standard misspellings. For instance, if you type "jug", one suggestion might be "dug", since j and d are one dot different; "tets" would offer a suggestion of "test", because you switched the last two characters.. This is both good and bad: it is nice to be able to quickly select the word you meant if you made a mistake instead of deleting the whole thing, but auto-complete would also be handy so you could fill longer words in faster. Speaking of which, text expansion shortcuts do not work in braille input.
Remember that braille is only one option. There is nothing stopping you from writing something in braille, then switching back to the on-screen keyboard for a while. This may become essential if you want to access Emoji, or if there is a symbol you cannot figure out how to type in braille. It may also prove useful to take advantage of the afore mentioned auto-complete feature--you might find that faster than braille in some instances. The point is that you can use braille alongside, not instead of, on-screen keyboards if you like.
Navigating Web Content
If you are on a webpage, you can use braille input to move around. For example, type an h, and then flick down to move to the next heading, or up to move to the previous one. To exit braille and start reading from where you landed, just rotor left or right, or perform a two-finger scrub. Once you start editing a text field on a webpage, you can type normally, without worrying about your input being interpreted as navigation commands.
This feature works very well overall, aside from the minor issues noted above. Having braille input available anywhere is a truly wonderful addition to iOS; use it for emails, your passcode, passwords, texts, searches… Anywhere you can type text, you can choose to do so in braille. In fact, I find myself able to use more complex passwords, because it is so much faster and easier to braille them than to use the on-screen keyboard. For more, take a look at Apple's official documentation on this topic, or my own wishlist for the next update to Braille Screen Input.