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Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

APH Proclaims that 2016 is the Year for Braille

In light of the recent, official adoption of the Unified English Braille (UEB) code in the United States, we offer a brief (and hopefully interesting) history and review of APH software efforts in concurrence with the transition over the past few years.

Background

Liblouis is an open source library that translates text in multiple languages into many braille codes. It has been in development and use for several years. It provides the translation services for familiar programs, such as JAWS, NVDA, DAISY Pipeline, bookshare.org, and more. (See www.liblouis.org.)
Liblouis is an incredible international effort that exemplifies the power of collaboration: providing a truly useful tool through mutual cooperation. APH first used Liblouis in 2012 to introduce experimental support for UEB on the braille Android™ device called Braille Plus 18. We called it experimental because while it got many of the UEB rules right, there were also several problems.
Software engineers from APH worked with the Liblouis code maintainers to correct the tables, enhance the rules, and provide exceptions; however, it became clear fairly quickly that fundamental architectural modifications were required to fully support some of the new UEB constructs, especially where UEB streamlined consecutive capitalized words and in regards to the treatment of emphasis.
APH programmer Mike Gray worked with international partners to introduce new operation codes, add expression matching, and obsolete unused status bits. While it was our intention to have these modifications released by the official UEB implementation date of January 4, 2016, the process of balancing radical changes while preserving support for dozens of languages and braille codes proved a bit more challenging than first imagined. The good news is that it works, and it works well; and you can use it today, even before the official APH release. Here is how:
Go to http://tech.aph.org/lt and install Send To Braille. Send To Braille is a free-of-charge Windows Send To shortcut that lets you point to a document from File Explorer, select Send To from the context menu, and then pick Braille to translate the file into quality UEB.
Disclaimer: Send To Braille produces "Quick and Dirty" braille. It does not perform any formatting except to preserve line breaks. It also cannot do anything with inaccessible images and other inaccessible complex file elements; however, if you have a simple document, such as a letter, the Send To Braille shortcut creates an accurate rendering of that file in UEB.
Send To Braille uses the APH beta version of Liblouis to translate the document. The quality is there; now the challenge is to continue carefully merging these changes back into the existing Liblouis body of code.

BrailleBlaster

While Send To Braille gives the average user a “quick and dirty” method to get accurate braille, textbook quality braille is essential for educational purposes. This is where BrailleBlaster comes in. BrailleBlaster is an open source project that uses Liblouis for the translation tasks it performs. BrailleBlaster is an editing tool for braille transcribers that gives them the means to translate; format; split into volumes; add transcriber notes; describe images; create braille tables of content, glossaries, and preliminary pages; and input direct braille for particularly difficult operations. In other words, BrailleBlaster provides all the tools necessary for a trained transcriber to efficiently produce a quality embossed braille textbook from an original publisher file, using the raw translation from Liblouis. Preliminary testing results indicate a substantial increase in the number of textbooks that can be produced compared to the current methods.
The development of BrailleBlaster and modifications to Liblouis are part of the REAL Plan (Resources with Enhanced Accessibility for Learning). The REAL Plan is an ongoing initiative of the American Printing House for the Blind to improve the conversion and delivery of braille and other accessible formats to students who are blind.

Transforming Braille

The APH Technology Product Research and Educational Product Research departments are currently guiding the design and field testing of a new, inexpensive braille reader called the Transforming Braille Display. (See http://www.transformingbraille.org/.) The Transforming Braille Group, LLC, with APH’s Larry Skutchan at the helm as CEO, is holding a sales meeting at the 2016 California State University, Northridge (CSUN) Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference to find wholesalers for the device, which costs one-fifth the price of current refreshable braille technology on the market and can be used on its own as a reader or by connecting to other devices, such as computers, phones, and tablets that support braille input and output.

Nemeth Tutorial

Nemeth is the braille code for mathematics. It has been difficult to find certified teachers and training material for learning Nemeth. APH partnered with Dr. Gaylen Kapperman of the Research and Development Institute and Northern Illinois University to create a universally accessible, online tutorial for learning Nemeth. (See https://tech.aph.org/nemeth/.) This free-of-charge tutorial includes over 50 interactive lessons. It features an accurate braille font, support for MathML, six-key braille input from a QWERTY keyboard, and full support for refreshable braille displays on any modern Web browser with screen reader support.

Braille Buzz

APH designed and is currently field testing a new early childhood toy for learning braille called Braille Buzz. Reminiscent of oldies like the Speak & Spell™ by Texas Instruments, this simple toy includes a braille keyboard, synthesized speech output, braille embossed letter buttons, and interactive braille games.

Braille Calculator

In August of 2015, APH released a firmware upgrade for the Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator that includes support for refreshable braille displays. For the first time ever, a student can use this advanced calculator and get output in both UEB and Nemeth braille. (See http://tech.aph.org/Orion%20TI-84%20Plus%20Documents/gc_res.htm.)

Visual Brailler

During the transition to UEB, braille transcribers working on the National Library Service (NLS) certification expressed a desire for a way to perform the exercises on an iPad. The Visual Brailler app for iPad serves that purpose. It performs the same functions as a traditional mechanical braillewriter, with the exception of embossing paper, and enables the transmission of lessons through email.
Visual Brailler is free on the Apple® App Store® online store. (See https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/visual-brailler/id888739587?mt=8.)

Refreshabraille 18

Refreshabraille 18 is an economical and high-quality 18-cell refreshable braille display and braille keyboard used to connect to a host device such as a computer, phone, or tablet.
In November 2015, APH released the 3rd generation of this device, which includes enhancements such as a better USB connection, improved navigation control, simple Bluetooth pairing, and more ergonomic keys. (See http://tech.aph.org/rbd_info.htm.)

Braille Plus 18

APH recognizes the value in directly integrating a braille display and keyboard into a portable device running a modern mobile operating system; however, in 2015, we regretfully temporarily terminated future production of the braille centric Android smart/phone/tablet called Braille Plus 18. APH is mindful of the value of such a tool; we continue to learn remarkable amounts of relevant information concerning the development of this device. (see http://tech.aph.org/plus_info.htm)

What Else

As you can see from this list of software related activities, APH’s commitment to braille education continues. Similar or greater efforts parallel this dedication in the areas of policy, production, research, and education to name a few.

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