Rediscovering blindness products

In recent months, I have discovered a tendency within myself that longs for more focused, hassle-free environments or niches, where distractions are reduced to a minimum, and I can immerse myself in one thing, and one thing only. And that has lead to rediscovering the merits of some blindness-specific products.

A bit of history

Products that specifically fulfill the needs of blind users have been around for a long time, and in earlier years, were often the only means of accessing certain information or content. These range from everything like either tactile or talking scales and talking thermometers, and what not, to sophisticated reading machines such as the Optacon, and braille displays. Later, as technology advanced, some of these means of access were replaced by scanners, or as of today, cameras, both stationary and mobile, combined with computers and optical character recognition software.

And as accessibility has become more mainstream, so have many assistive technology concepts such as DAISY book reading or GPS navigation. The greatest example is probably the popularity of audio books. Originally mostly used by the blind, shipped in big boxes full of cassette tapes (or even tape spools, narrated by often semi-professional volunteers, and only available through specialized libraries for the blind, they have evolved into a mainstream way of consumption through services such as Audible. They are very popular among sighted consumers, and narrators are often professional speakers or actors.

Enter the mainstream of smartphones and tablets

While in the early 2000s, cell phones were still mainly made accessible by specialized software, for example Talks or MobileSpeak for the Nokia S60 platform, or special devices such as the PAC Mate were created to bring mainstream operating systems onto special hardware with a screen reader added, the advance of iPhone and Android devices in the late 2000s brought a revolution for blind and visually impaired people. For the first time, accessibility was being built into the platform, and no special software or hardware was needed to operate these devices.

Over the next couple of years, many of the things specialized hardware did before were transferred, or newly developed, for these platforms. To name a few:

  • DAISY e-book players with interfaces to certain library services for the blind
  • special GPS solutions such as BlindSquare or Sendero
  • the KNFB Reader to scan documents with the built-in camera
  • VoiceDream Reader to read all kinds of material, including DAISY, MP3 books, epub, Word, PDF and other documents etc.

All these apps fulfill certain needs for blind users that seem to no longer require the use of special hardware.

Moreover, the cost of these apps is far lower than many of the price tags for the special hardware such as a DAISY player/recorder, stand-alone GPS solution, or reading machines.

One thing that didn’t get replaced, and which is still as important today as it ever was, is a braille display. So smartphones and tablets usually also support braille displays, mainly via Bluetooth. If one is able and desires to read braille, there is still no way around specialized hardware for this purpose.

Problems crept in

All good, or what? Well, I thought so, for a long time, too. I even sold some blindness-related products such as my first generation Victor Reader Stream by Humanware because I thought my iPhone and iPad could now fulfill all my needs. And for the most part, they do, but at a cost.

And that cost is not, in most cases, technical in nature, but rather has to do with the sheer fact that the device I am running the app on is a mainstream device. Many of these problems are, in one form or another, also applicable to people who aren’t blind, but might impact them less than they do me.

Distractions while reading

Here I am, immersed in a book in my eBook app of choice, and the screen reader is merrily reading it to me at a comfortable pace. Suddenly, a notification comes in, for example a Twitter notification, crashing in like a loud bell, either chiming over my narrative, or even stopping it in its tracks. When it does what, I have not figured out yet, seems to be randomly switching. Granted, I can turn Do Not Disturb mode on in such a way that it even suppresses notifications when the screen is active. But I have to consciously do that. At other times, I might want to have Do Not Disturb on while the phone is locked, but get notifications when it’s on, so I have to go back into the third or fourth level deep Settings screen to toggle the option.

This is not blindness specific. A person reading in the same app will get distracted by a banner notification popping up visually just as I am acoustically.

Another example is listening to music or podcasts. With the mobile screen reader on, any notification will by default cause the normal audio source to duck (its volume turned down) so that the screen reader’s voice can dominantly talk over it. You can then either quickly silence speech, or pause the audio source. But what if you’re on your Bluetooth earphones doing something on the opposite side of your room from where your smartphone is? Suddenly, you have two voices talking to you at once. I, for one, cannot cope with two vocal sources talking to me at the same time. I either miss one of them, or don’t catch what is being said at all any more.

Reading e-books in braille

I don’t know about other blind people, but I found that, having tested several systems over the years, none of them get continuous reading right with a braille display. Doesn’t matter which OS, desktop or mobile, I was using, they all had flaws that made a continuous reading experience, fully submerging in the contents of a great fantasy or science fiction novel, a pain in the posterior. One or two of them had German forward translation of grade 2 all wrong for literature, forcing upon me capitalized writing, which is uncommon. Others would jump erratically around when pages were flipped. Others wouldn’t even offer grade 2 in a language I am speaking at all, and while I can read computer messages or code in computer braille just fine, I just downright refuse to do it with literature. It’s just not acceptable.

I also found that most of them did a better job in English than other languages, like my mother tongue German. And from asking around, i hear similar things about French or Spanish. But even in English, I heard several reports from people I talked to that the braille displays jumping around unpredictably at times causing massive reading interruptions, is a common theme even in English.

So after extensive testing and research, I can confidently say that all mainstream solutions thus far have failed to address one major part of my needs: Continuous literature reading in braille. The fact that there are several solutions out there that do braille grade 2 translations well in various languages means that it can be done, it’s just that it isn’t being done in all of the screen readers I tested.

GPS in pedestrian mode

Yes, there are lots of GPS solutions that try to address the needs of blind pedestrians, some more costly than others, some on a subscription model, others not. But all of them fall short in that they usually don’t integrate well with the maps solution that is on the devices by default, use their own map material, and some also use additional services for points of interest, but they all just don’t quite get the precision right that I’d expect. I was doing a little shootout with my best friend, both on main and side streets as well as an off-road situation in a park or forest. He was using a Trekker Breeze from Humanware, I was using my iPhone with several GPS apps on it. We both set landmarks and also compared how our devices would behave in situations with street junctions or other situations. We both went the same routes, so we had roughly the same GPS coverage. Let me say that, while on streets, routes were OK with both devices, although even there his intersection announcements were more precise than mine and my GPS apps would more often get wrong addresses than his Breeze, it was in the off-road situation where he really beat the crap out of my apps. The precision with which the Breeze alerted him of landmarks for turning points in park pathways and other situations was just mind-boggling.

In addition to these observations, I also noticed that my apps, regardless of which one I used, were all very verbal and distracting, trying to give me lots of information I didn’t need at that moment. And the UIs were all much more complex than on the Trekker, I took longer, even thogh I was familiar with the apps, to get certain tasks done than he was. And did I mention that I cannot sort two voices talking at the same time? With my screen reader on, and much of the apps being self-voicing anyway, I often found myself in situations where two different synths were babbeling information I could have found useful, but couldn’t keep separated because of the two-voices problem.

General inconsistencies and inaccessibility

One other problem that keeps me always on the edge when using mainstream devices are screen reader inconsistencies and inaccessible apps or websites. Any update to an app can break accessibility, any update to the OS can break certain screen reader behavior, or web content I might need or have to consume at a particular moment can prove to be inaccessible, requiring me to either fiddle around with screen reader tricks to kick it into obedience, or simply not being able to get something done at all. Yes, despite all web accessibility efforts, this is still more often the case in 2018 than any of us could want.

Reorienting my views and behavior

All of these problems didn’t dawn on me at once, except maybe for the direct comparison of GPS solutions described above. They crept in, and over time became more and more annoying, even a stress factor at times. Reporting bugs in the braille translation to various companies and projects have not yielded much of improvements, not by me or by other braille users. And others just cannot really be fixed without some serious rethinking along the lines of “Hey, the user is reading a book, so maybe we should be smart enough to not disturb them as much…”

So I thought what could be done to rectify this situation? I want to get less distracted while doing certain things, or get more precise directions when walking in my favorite park. I recently lost a lot of weight and became more mobile physically, so this is something that is more important to me today than it was a few years ago. But it must be an enjoyable experience, not one that stresses me out just because of the cognitive load of trying to compensate for my apps’ lack of precision. And as I get older, I can tolerate less of these stress levels than when I was younger. Was burnt out once, don’t need to go there again for sure!

It was then that a few things happened at once. I was talking to my best friend, and at some point, he mentioned that his belovid Breeze was slowly, but surely, coming apart after 7 years of heavy use, and that he needed something new. Through research, I found the Victor Reader Trek by Humanware, which combines two devices into one: A Victor Reader Stream and a Trekker Breeze. Since we’re both in Germany, we’ll still have to wait a bit until this device is released here, but it’s definitely something both of us are curious about. The Trek, as it’s called, can do multiple things well: Audio books from various sources, podcasts, and other media consumption in controlled, secluded environment without distractions, and it can do navigation in its orientation mode. If you’re interested in hearing a bit about it, I found the Tech Doctor Podcast episode on the Trek that was released a few weeks before this writing.

The second thing that happened was that I came across the ElBraille, a Windows 10 PC in docking station format that can connect with two models of the Freedom Scientific Focus Blue braille displays. I own the 14 cell version, so I asked a local dealer to give me one to try. It turned out to not be a fit for me, for various braille-related reasons and more, but it prompted me to look for other small braille devices that could be used to read a braille book that had been converted from a digital source. And because I was a huge fan of the Handy Tech Bookworm in the 1990s and 2000s, an 8 cell braille device that fit in the palm of one hand and could be used to read for hours and hours, I eventually landed with the Help Tech Actilino, a 16 cell display with many features similar to the bookworm. I’ll be getting a device in two or three weeks to test it for a while, and am very curious if I can use it to submerge fully in a piece of braille literature without the weight of a full braille book crushing my ribs. If it is anything close to the Bookworm experience, I am almost sure I’m gonna love it.


As I have been using many mainstream devices for several years almost exclusively until now, I have found that often, the sheer richness of them can cause a cognitive load that gets in the way of enjoying certain activities that are meant to help you unwind, just get to where you need to be, or otherwise cause more hassle than should be necessary. It dawned upon me that after all, some of these blindness specific devices could again have a place in my life to help me relax more or take some other stress out of daily activities. After all, these devices are a very controlled environment, and I could imagine that not having to deal with the inconsistencies of a screen reader, the inaccessibility of a website, or the translation goofiness of some braille output could be refreshing for a change.

I fully realize that this is not an option for everyone, and I want to clearly state that these are views coming out of my personal experiences over the past few years. These assistive technology devices still have quite a high price tag, and especially given the high unemployment rate among blind people in all parts of the world, and considering that government funding is not available everywhere, it is more important than ever that mainstream devices become more accessible with every day. But people also differ, and time has shown that touch screen devices aren’t for every person, either. Some people just cannot effectively use them. So the statement that for some, such special devices are still the only means of accessing certain content, remains as true today as it was ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

Interestingly, I have also noticed this tendency to consciously take time off from the distractions of the smartphone has become more prominent around me. My partner, for example, uses a Kindle Oasis for reading books exclusively. It does not have notification bells and whistles, but she can zoom the text to a scale that’s comfortable for her eyes. As she once said: Books on paper can’t be zoomed. So this tendency to use dedicated devices for immersive tasks is a theme I am seeing more and more within people across a multitude of abilities.

Time will tell if this will actually work out for me the way I am hoping it will, but the desire for some simplification and reduction of overhead is definitely strong within me. 🙂


The products mentioned here are purely mentioned as the result of my research. This is not a sponsored blog post, I get no money from any of the mentioned companies for mentioning their products. I did a lot of product research and looked at far more options than I mentioned here, but these were the ones I settled on for wanting to try them out.

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17 thoughts on “Rediscovering blindness products”

  1. I recommend you to give VarioUltra20 a try. it is amazing device with great built-in apps and connectivity options. it was used to be manufactured by a german company called Baum, but now they rebranded to VisioBraille, and their new website is

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I know the Vario displays, and although I’ve tried, could never really warm up to them. Just a matter of what I personally favorite, this does not generally speak against the quality of the Varios.

  2. The Help Tech Actilino is a fine display. For long periods of reading I prefer something longer, but I’m sure you already know about the strengths and weaknesses of various line length. Unfortunately I have more trouble keeping actilino connected to iOS than any other display. I don’t know if it is my misfortune or what? However, for using it the “old-fashioned” way by transferring files to it for off-line reading it works just fine and has the same Handy Tech / Help Tech software that seemingly has been around since the 90s.
    I have been more in the camp of using mainstream products than specialized ones (with the obvious exception of Braille displays) for awhile. The dated nature of the hardware and software on most products before it is even released concerns me, not tomention the price. However, the points you bring up are valid. And I agree that they should not be dismissed just because they’re not mainstream. Sometimes a device engineered just for you is the best. Hopefully with 3D printing, etc., we can even make our own someday.
    Also interesting about the GPS experiment, I’d not have thought there was still that much variance in accuracy. Perhaps phones don’t have as accurate a receiver as they are tuned more for driving where a foot or two precision is ok?…

  3. Marco, another very thoughtful article as always. I don’t know if this is a sign of me getting older, or just having less patience for things, but I’ve been giving this idea of blindness-specific products more thought of late. Like many, I was absolutely in love with the idea that we could use mainstreamed products to do mainstreamed things … just like everyone else. I was recently reminded though of a rather ancient product by today’s standards, the Braille ‘N Speak. I take a lot of notes and for the most part, this works very well using iPad and either Drafts or OneNote. Using the Braille ‘N Speak though, I merely needed to turn on the device and start writing, no screen to unlock, no icons to find, no new note option to activate, no notifications creeping in whilst I write, no issues with keyboards occasionally not pairing … just turn on, write the note, be done. Sure today’s mainstreamed devices are far more powerful than the Braille ‘N Speak, but with that power comes levels of complication and sometimes, I think all those levels truly get in the way.

    Your GPS adventures also really resonate with me. Recently, I started a new job and as such, am exploring new bus routes and finding different landmarks around my new office. I have a folder containing many GPS apps, but again, all the options lead to levels of complexity. Which one should I use to get detailed intersection info? Does that one give me info about businesses in the area? What about the level of verbosity I’d hear when walking? I think three people asked me if I needed any help while I stood on the corner debating which app would be the best to use for my situation and then trying to recall how to use that app. In short, none of the apps gave me exactly what I wanted and I couldn’t remember how to correctly configure the settings.

    We’ve sure come a long way from the days when I used to carry a Victor stream for reading, an iPod for music/podcast listening and my trusty Nokia phone for texting/tweeting but looking back, those were simpler times, simple in that less mental effort was required to just get stuff done, indeed to just get through the day.

    1. Hi Steve!

      Thank you so much for this thoughtful response!

      I think three people asked me if I needed any help while I stood on the corner debating which app would be the best to use for my situation and then trying to recall how to use that app.

      I so feel you! I was in that situation more than once while fiddling around with the smartphone to try and get my bearings or trying to find out whether I was anywhere near where I wanted to be.

      Your example with the Braille ‘n Speak also reminded me that, even in meetings today, many sighted colleagues use pen and paper to take notes. It’s just quicker than fiddling with their laptops or such. These notetakers are our equivalent of that I think.

      I wouldn’t want to trade the levels of mainstream access we have today for anything in the world, but it’s certainly good to take a break from the complexities of it every once in a while, I found.

  4. Great article!
    My current job requires me to take a lot of short notes very quickly where fast access to the information is more important than anything else. And this is where I realized the value of on-board note taking features of braille displays. Sure, I could take notes on a phone, but that requires me to unlock it every time and have it babbling away as I do so while using a braille display over Bluetooth isn’t as reliable and also requires me to handle the phone first to unlock it. In comparison, a braille display’s built-in note taker is ready to type in a few seconds in absolute silence, which means I can concentrate more on talking with custommers rather than setting up to write down information.

      1. I first used a Braille edge, which worked great. Later on I got my hands on the newest Focus 14 and have been using its scratchpad feature. Comparing the 2, the braille edge runs Windows and has some more features like more advanced file management so you can write notes in either brf or txt. In comparison the focus runs on some microcontroller so it comes up a bit faster. The tradeoff of this is that it only saves in a custom format that just stores the dot paterns. The files can be exported by having it type them out to a connected device as braille key input over BT or USb.
        Since portability isn’t as much of an issue for me I like the focus due to its form factor, but if you want a easily readable format for other devices another display would be better.

  5. I can’t honestly argue with any of the problems you raise here. For me, they’re outweighed by problems on the flip side such as automatic outdatedness, compatibility issues with the mainstream and cost. I also don’t like carrying multiple devices around and having to switch between them; for me, that outweighs the cognitive load of having to turn on do not disturb, for example. However, I can totally see it from your perspective and I imagine there are many in the same boat. I used to be totally anti blindness specific tech, and while it’s still not for me, I’ve become a lot more pragmatic as I grow older. Sometimes, you just have to go with what works.

    IMO, this is less about the virtues of blindness specific tech and more about the failures of mainstream tech. Yes, mainstream tech has come a long way in terms of accessibility and I’m not crapping on that, but problems like these show us there’s still a long way to go. We can and should expect more, both in accessibility and otherwise. That doesn’t fix the problem right now, but one of the reasons I personally persist (even despite the struggles sometimes) is that I truly believe mainstream is the correct solution from a principle perspective, if only we can get it right. As someone who works in this space, it’s a constant challenge for me to make it better, to challenge others to make it better. As I was working on NVDA (and now Firefox), it drove me to constantly say: no, this sucks and it’s not good enough, even if people have just come to live with it. We must do better. For example, it’s precisely this mentality that led us to consider the ability to delay speaking of notifications during a “say all” in NVDA as part of the speech refactor project. (That isn’t implemented yet, but the but the framework we designed now allows for it.) Of course, I don’t expect the same masochism from anyone else, but I thought it worth mentioning as an interesting perspective.

    I think this also further emphasises the importance of competition in this space, and I really worry about the direction the world is heading in that sense. It’s great that we have builtin accessibility on iOS, but we can’t compete with VoiceOver and thus push things forward where it stagnates. And we’re seeing more and more of this kind of lock-down, even as we’re conversely seeing greater efforts on builtin accessibility. Sure, you can write third party access solutions on Android, but the API is such that you are severely limited in how much you can truly innovate. Practically speaking, the only platform where that isn’t true is Windows. Think about the ways NVDA has pushed the industry forward, even for users who don’t use it. What would a world without things like NVDA be like? That’s the reality I’m worried we might eventually reach: where the only way we *can* compete is blindness specific tech. There’s a distopia for you.

    1. Hi Jamie,
      I’m curious (not critical) about the reason why you don’t mention other operating systems, such as GNU / Linux, BSD and Solaris (of which, I must admit, I have no idea about the last two’s accessibility state). I do know that accessibility solutions exist fof GNU / Linux, and that they’re serving some people well (according to what I’ve read, I haven’t extensively used them). So is your lack of mention due to lack of knowledge, or because you consider them not good enough at present?

      1. [Caveat emptor: I am sighted, I may not know what I am talking about. I will try my best.]

        So, I can think of a few reasons why he didn’t mention Linux and other systems:

        * Windows is available to lots of people without the need for reinstalling an OS. I think it may be an extra hurdle to blind users that not all Linux installers support screen readers. (I guess Ubuntu/Fedora do since they install from essentially a full Gnome desktop, but e.g. my distribution, openSUSE probably does not. Correct me if that is wrong.)
        * Even after you have installed, there is the driver issue. And it’s just like with other devices, except accessibility technology is much less mainstream and more custom than, say, Wi-fi cards and fingerprint readers (I am picking these two devices classes because these are both very mainstream and often lack working Linux drivers). Essentially, if your accessibility device manufacturer supports Windows and macOS, you’re likely limited to that.
        * Just like with anything, accessibility solutions on Linux are fractured. As long as you’re using KDE or GNOME software, you’re probably fine but you may need some software written with an outdated UI framework that does not support your accessibility solution.
        * I think speech synthesis quality on Linux lags behind Windows and macOS by a lot at this point. I have tried Orca twice and the speech synthesis significantly contributed to my rising aggression levels. (Of course, I am also not used to having to wait for the computer to speak to me. Screen readers are introducing a lot of lag into interactions. At least that’s what it seemed like to me. Again, correct me please.)

  6. And as I was writing that comment on my iPhone with braille screen input, I was plagued with problems like VO crashes, VO failing to allow me to switch back to braille screen input, VO failing to navigate by line and VO failing to activate the right controls on the screen. And these bugs just hang around release after release and never get fixed. See above re the importance of competition. If only we could write an open source screen reader for iOS. And people ask me why I hate walled gardens. If only Firefox OS hadn’t failed, we could have done great things for mobile a11y. I fight for a world where mainstream tech is the right answer, where it’s beautiful and it works, but maybe it’s a losing battle and I’m too stubborn to admit it. Time will tell.

  7. I’ve used Linux, and while Emacspeak is one of the best talking accessibility I’ve seen, with its changing of speech parameters to show formatting, and use of sounds is amazing, it still relies on Emacs. Orca is just an average screen reader, to me anyways. Nothing special or good about it. Fenrir is a new screen reader for the console or terminal. It’s okay, with nice features like spell checking, but it’s all limited by the terminal, so is BRLTTY and Speakup.
    In iOS, Braille really is simple. No showing of formatting info, like italics or bold. No spacing for paragraphs, nothing like that, unless you use the BARD Mobile app, and then you’re limited to whatever BRF files you can find or download from BARD, and those are, now, usually just Braille Music. That really shows how low even the NLS know Braille to be, that plenty is released for audio, but very few is done for Braille. I’m not even mad at them or anything, it’s just how things are now.
    The only screen reader that does show formatting info is NVDA. Imagine that. Real Braille symbols for italics, both start and end, not just some $I, $b, all that the Braille Note Touch uses in its word processor.
    Speaking of the Touch, it can’t show formatting info outside the Word Processor, it cannot open EPUB files, and it runs Android 4.4, still. Why am I so hung up on formatting info? Because first, it exists in print, so it should exist for Braille and speech as well. Second, if a screen reader cannot show everything in just rich text to users, it cannot completely read the screen, or read objects as they now do.
    Narrator is the first Windows screen reader, indeed the first screen reader besides Emacspeak, that differentiates formatted text using the voice itself, not just by putting “italics” or “emph” before and after the effected text. I really like that. It’s not perfect, mainly because the speech synthesizer isn’t very flexible, so the Narrator folks don’t have much variability to work with, but sounds could also be used, which I think is what NVDA will do. Speaking of sounds, no screen reader uses 3D, or binaural, sounds yet. VoiceOver uses stereo somewhat, a cool flashy feature for a while, until you find that it cannot track progress bars across the screen in stereo. NVDA uses rising pitches for its progress bars, which I think isn’t so useful unless you have good pitch senses. No “specialized” tech really uses sounds at all. Sometimes the Braille Note would use them when connecting to the Internet and such, deleting text which was annoying, and resetting of course, but besides that, it was all speech or Braille. The Braille Sense used vibrations for misspelled words which was nice, but NVDA has a sound for that.
    What all that amounts to is that neither mainstream nor specialized tech ever has gotten to the fullest potential. Specialized tech cannot open EPUB files, for example, which is a standard format, and has been for several years now. The Braille Sense Polaris can open *some* EPUB files, but others show as blank. Mainstream products, like the EPUB Reader for Firefox add-on, isn’t nearly accessible enough to be a good EPUB reader, and Adobe Editions doesn’t show formatting information, and makes paragraphs into blank lines, which really kills the reading flow. And before some one says “just convert to txt,” That gets rid of the table of contents, links, formatting, headings, and so on. Sighted people don’t have to convert files to some ancient format, neither should we have to convert Ebooks to HTML, or better yet, unzip the HTML and have to read books in web browsers with the whole book splayed before us, threatening to crush the browser beneath its bulk.

    1. That last paragraph specially resonates with me. I used to use ADE, but after discovering (by accident, back when Epub Reader was a bit more accessible and Lucifox was still around (because I think it’s not now)) that it couldn’t render a book with tables correctly, I switched to it. I use Epub Reader, but I know that configuring it first time can be really frustrating (but once configured, you can use it decently). But I sometimes just want to read the whole book at once, and I do convert it to htmlz or html using calibre, so I think that has its uses too.

    1. Thanks for that suggestion and the links! I live in Europe, so I can imagine ordering and shipping to be rather difficult. And should there be a need for service, a downright nightmare. I also didn‘t find any hints whether besides English, it would support German, too. So I am hesitant.

  8. Well let’s just all go back to the dark ages and put our smart phones away. I think the problem arises when we soley rely on technology to do things for us. A GPs is helpful but don’t forget your Orientation and mobility lessons? As for the rest, imagine how higher still the unemployment rate would be if technology didn’t level the playing field? Yes blind specific products may be better in a certain scenario but when you can carry one device and practically do everything, …there is no competition.

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