JAWS & Young Braille Readers

Traditionally young braille learners have used either the Perkins mechanical writer or the Mountbatten electronic braille writer for their first steps in braille – for both reading and writing.

Both devices give children an introduction to the idea of a full page of paper; but the Mountbatten has the advantage of speech feedback that complements the brailling, which promotes independent learning. There is also the issue of the strong finger pressure required when using the Perkins, which can be a barrier for some children.

Electronic braille displays, like the Focus 40, have soft-touch keys for entering braille, just like the Mountbatten, which means that a child of any age can engage with braille as soon as they are cognitively ready. But there are two new learning concepts that need to be added into the process when using an electronic braille display – the concept of the “braille window”, and the operation of a computer screen reader such as NVDA, JAWS or Windows Narrator.

1.	Photo of Focus 40 braille display with a laptop running Word and showing the JAWS Braille Viewer in yellow.

The “braille window” is not too hard a concept to get across.  Electronic braille displays have braille lines of fixed width – the smallest is 14 cells, the largest is 80 cells. So, the reader can only “see” that number of characters at a time. To read the rest of the document, they need to advance, or pan, the braille window forward to the next chunk of text.

The trick is to explain that this is no different to moving down a line on the braille page, except that you will have no margin reference point and formatting of columns is not possible. Perhaps this should be viewed as an opportunity to teach and explore the value of spatial layout.

The second factor is the barrier of complexity. Blind computer users are denied the intuitive iconography that sighted mouse users enjoy, and it simply isn’t possible for them to switch on a computer and guess how to do things just by glancing at the desktop; they have to be taught a lot of jargon before they can do anything at all. For example, let’s say I want to type a new document in WORD – as a sighted mouse user, even if I know practically nothing about computers, I would notice the big blue W icon, click on it, click on the “New Blank Document” button and begin typing.

Now compare that to the experience of a blind computer novice. They must navigate sequentially using arrow keys and tab keys through a maze they cannot perceive “all at once”. Sighted beginners can filter out the noise of ribbons and menus and icons – if they need to switch bold on, well hey presto, there’s a bold letter b on the ribbon, and even better the underline option is the only underlined thing on the screen.

So, no wonder that teachers are reluctant to introduce electronic braille displays until the student has a basic understanding of screen readers and the QWERTY keyboard. But this reluctance can delay early braille learning. Is it possible to introduce the braille display by simplifying and limiting the computer screen reading aspect?  I think it is, and ironically it is simpler if you deploy the most sophisticated screen reader JAWS, rather than the one that comes built-in to Windows i.e. Narrator.

Here is my method, using the child’s laptop (assuming they have one on loan!).

First make sure that JAWS auto-starts when they switch it on. If they can already type “word”, either in braille or in QWERTY, then show them where the Icon for windows key (Windows Key) is and ask them to press that followed by typing “word” and then press the Enter key icon (Enter key) TWICE. That is already a lesson in the two most important keys on the keyboard.

This opens a blank new document, ready to type. You may need to change their braille setting to reflect the Grade they are working on and of course set it to UEBC.  I imagine you (the teacher) would do this for them - once. Here is the quick way: Press INS 6 to open the Settings Center for WORD – that’s the INSERT Key with the number 6 – not F6.

2.	Screenshot of the JAWS settings centre with the braille translation settings.

Under Translation, select Grade 1 or Grade 2, for both Input (what they braille) and Output (what they read on the braille display). Then click OK.  

Now that they are brailling away to their hearts content, JAWS will echo in speech every letter they type, so they can be sure they pressed the right combination of dots. But wait, there’s more! It’s called Braille Study Mode. Switch it on by going to Quick Settings with INS V and typing “study”.

If they are using a braille display like the Focus 40, they can press a cursor routing button above any braille character they have typed and the letter will be spoken. If they are up to using Grade 2 contractions, then individual letters will be spelled out for them. For example, if they press the button above the braille symbol Image of braille for sign then JAWS will speak out “f o r”.

3.	Screen shot of the JAWS settings centre with Braille Study mode Highlighted.

And finally - a lifesaver for teachers and parents alike – the JAWS Braille and Text Viewers. These features place a display of the braille dots and the backtranslated braille in text at the top of the screen, for the benefit of sighted non-braille readers, and the benefit of teachers who can’t see the braille because sticky little fingers are on top of it! How to switch it on – and leave it on? The quickest way is to use INS with SPACEBAR, followed by b b (for Braille Viewer) or b t (for Text Viewer).

Screenshot of Word with the JAWS Braille viewer turned on.


These are great, unique features in JAWS, and easy to “set and forget”. Unfortunately, these features are not available in Windows Narrator, and though Narrator does have some braille display support, it is not reliable and not very configurable. Though JAWS is expensive, as are laptops, schools are increasingly moving towards state-based subscriptions where every child or teacher can access JAWS on demand, including for use at home. 

We all know the value of independent learning, the joy of scribbling and creativity. By setting up a braille display with a laptop as discussed, we don’t need to teach the whole computer screen reader, or anything much at all except the fun task in hand – learning braille.  But how quickly will the children want to explore all the rest; before you know it, they will be downloading Harry Potter and uploading Letters to the Editor!