Bristol Braille team celebrating at 2017 AbilityNet Accessibility Award ceremony

There is a perception, especially amongst sighted people, that Braille is yesterday’s format. Printed Braille books are cumbersome and expensive, and after all, more and more books are being released in audio format. For many sighted people, the only contact with Braille is on elevator signs or the keys of an ATM.

That perception, however, would be incorrect – and here’s what we’re doing about it.

Research tells us that blind people who can read Braille are significantly more likely to be employed. Indeed, in the UK, many blind people in the public eye have credited Braille – at least in part – for their success.

David Blunkett who was the UK Home Secretary (one of the most senior UK government positions, with a brief covering justice, immigration and homeland security) from 2001-2004 used Braille notes to give his speeches at the dispatch box. Peter White, the presenter of “In Touch” on BBC Radio 4, relies on Braille to produce his radio shows. But even away from the glittering heights of parliamentary politics and publicly funded talk radio, Braille is essential for students, especially in the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math.

Audio books are great for fiction, but I have it on good authority that listening to a theoretical physics textbook through earphones is neither a particularly enjoyable, nor easy, experience. So while audio books and screen readers have their place, they can never be a complete replacement for good, old-fashioned Braille. Only 8% of STEM textbooks in the UK, for example, are published in Braille format – a significant barrier to access for blind and visually impaired students.

This brings us to the central problem: Braille technology has stagnated.

Whereas Kindles and E-Reading apps have revolutionized access to the printed word for sighted people, existing Braille display units are expensive and impractical. The best devices currently on the market cost into the thousands of dollars and can display only one line of Braille at a time.

For sighted people, imagine reading a book through a window which shows only one line of text at a time. For applications in STEM fields, they are often very impractical. As they only show one line of text at a time, they cannot display tabular mathematical information in context. Forget about reading Braille music, or skimming down a page in a book.

Bristol Braille Technology has developed a radically affordable, multi-line Braille E-reader (think of a Braille Kindle) called the Canute. Whereas existing displays can display one line of between 12 and 80 Braille characters, we can show 360 – nine lines, of forty characters each. And the best part? Because we use a completely different mechanism to existing devices (we often joke that the Canute has more in common with an 18th-century automaton than a Kindle), the Canute will be available for a price comparable to a new iPhone or Perkins Brailler.

Working out of the (admittedly slightly anarchic) Bristol Hackspace in the beautiful city of Bristol (think cider, pirates, and lots of hills) since 2012, the team has designed the Canute from the word go in collaboration with Braille users and visually impaired people. The Braillists foundation, a worldwide group of over 400 Braille users, has proved instrumental in the design of the unit, particularly the user interface – the design of which has been largely carried out by the group.

Admittedly, the process hasn’t always been smooth (don’t even ask about the seventh prototype model), but we’re inching closer by the day – the 2017 prototype is nearly at release spec, and we expect to be on the market by spring 2018.

We won the 2017 tech4good accessibility award, and have received significant coverage in the mainstream UK press throughout the last year. The units have been demonstrated in the United States, Ireland, and the UK, and later in the year, we will be demonstrating in India, and sunny Crewe, Cheshire (one of England’s finest resort towns).

You can get a quick introduction to the Canute in this video:

Liam Smyth works in publicity for Bristol Braille Technology, a not-for-profit company working out of the Bristol Hackspace to develop the Canute, the world’s first multi-line Braille E-Reader. To learn more about Bristol Braille Technology, visit bristolbraille.co.uk or braillists.org. To get in touch, email enquiries@bristolbraille.co.uk or follow them on Twitter at @bristol_braille.

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