Type in Braille with the TalkBack Braille Keyboard for Your Android Device
In iOS 8, Apple released Braille Screen Input, which let Voiceover users type in Braille on their devices. Since then it has become a very popular feature among blind users. Many find using the regular keyboard on iOS or Android slow and cumbersome, and find typing in Braille much faster. Now, Google has released the TalkBack Braille keyboard for most Android devices.
The TalkBack Braille keyboard is a software keyboard for Android which allows you to position your fingers on the screen and type as if you were using a Perkins Brailler. It’s built into Android Accessibility Suite version 8.2, and works on Android 5 or later.
Setting It Up
To configure the TalkBack Braille keyboard, go to the TalkBack settings, and find the Braille keyboard option. On my device it is the last option in the “Other Feedback” section. From here you can choose the language, currently only Unified English Braille, swap dot position, decide whether dots should be included if you release them early, and configure typing echo.
To switch to the Braille keyboard, select the “Change Input Method” button at the bottom of the screen anytime the keyboard is showing. Select the TalkBack Braille keyboard from the list. If you are using another screen reader, such as Samsung’s voice assistant, you will receive a message to turn on TalkBack to use the keyboard. The first time you select the keyboard you will be in the keyboard tutorial, which will walk you through how to hold the phone, some of the gestures, and typing a few letters. Once the keyboard is selected, you are ready to begin typing.
Using the Keyboard
Once everything is set up, you are ready to type in Braille. To use the keyboard, hold your device in landscape mode—horizontally with the screen facing away from you and the charger port to the right. Use your thumb and pinky to grip the phone and place the middle three fingers of each hand on the screen. Your fingers should be in position, with your left hand representing dots 1-3, and your right hand dots 4-6. Your fingers should be on the same dots as they would when using a Perkins Brailler. You can then type using standard contracted or uncontracted Braille.
To insert a space, swipe right with one finger, and swipe left to delete a letter. Swiping right with two fingers creates a new line, and left deletes a word. Swiping down with two fingers hides the keyboard, and a swipe down with three switches to the next keyboard. If you’re filling out a search box or other field with a submit button, swiping up with two fingers submits the text. Lastly, swiping up with three fingers brings up a list of options where you can switch between contracted and uncontracted Braille, view all gestures, access the tutorial again, or go to the keyboard settings.
Impressions of the TalkBack Braille Keyboard
For a new product only a couple weeks old at time of writing, Google has done an excellent job with the Braille keyboard. Typing is fast and works well, and I haven’t encountered any issues or bad translations in my limited use. That said, there are things that could be improved to make the experience even better.
- For now, only Unified English Braille is supported. If you need another language, I’d encourage reaching out to Google Accessibility to ask them to include the language.
- One thing that could be improved is how certain contractions are read. Contractions involving vowels such as AR, ED, OU, etc. are pronounced as words rather than the individual letters. This can be a little confusing if you have character echo on.
- If you delete a letter, and then type another letter, that can result in a problem if that letter has a contraction attached to it. For example, if you have the word ‘about’ in your document and delete the t, if you type the t again and swipe right for a space, you will end up with abouthat. To get around this, use the letter sign, dots 5-6, if you need to type a letter in the middle or at the end of a word.
- When typing a web or email address such as 123nfb.com, it is necessary to enter a letter sign, or else it will come out 123n62.com. While a letter sign is required for letters A through J as numbers use the same dot patterns, a letter sign is not necessary for K onward and all future characters should be treated as letters unless another number sign is used.
- When filling out forms with multiple fields on the web, you can often press a next button in the bottom right of the keyboard to go to the next field. There is no current way to do this with the TalkBack Braille keyboard. I’d like to see the submit text gesture handle this in these situations.
I have tried the keyboard for doing searches, sending text messages, taking notes, and other tasks around the system. Other than the few issues mentioned above, everything worked smoothly and the keyboard is a pleasure to use.
Google has taken an important step for improving Braille access on Android. While Braille display support is still in need of serious help, users can now type in Braille into almost any Android device. Recently, the lack of a Braille screen input feature for Android has been a primary reason why some people won’t consider using it. I never got into Braille Screen Input during my iPhone days, but I will likely use this heavily going forward. As Google continues to improve and further develop the TalkBack Braille keyboard, things will likely get even better than they currently are. I look forward to seeing what Google does with this in the future.