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Louisville nonprofit aims to improve digital braille standards

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Most digital reading devices for people who are blind are limited in functionality.

Reading tablets for sighted people are advanced and comprehensive. But people who are blind rely on outdated devices with limited functions. The American Printing House for the Blind, a Louisville nonprofit, is part of a global initiative to improve them.

The APH strives to make learning more accessible for blind people. It recently partnered with the DAISY Consortium, an international nonprofit with a similar mission, to develop new standards for digital braille. They’re calling it eBRF, which stands for electronic Braille Ready File.

William Freeman is the tactile technology product manager with APH. He said the new standard will be especially beneficial to students.

“If you've ever seen a braille book, they're very large and spread out over multiple volumes and will often be taller than the kid that is using that textbook,” Freeman said.

While current electronic devices are less burdensome than carrying multiple heavy books around, he said they don’t do enough to provide youth who are blind with learning opportunities equal to those of their sighted peers.

“It's already hard enough when you're a braille user in a traditional classroom,” Freeman said.

“Your contents may be arriving late. It's hard to navigate through it. It's maybe set up in a way that's slightly different than the print textbook that your fellow students are using. And so this is just going to be another way that we can level the playing field.”

Braille, the tactile alphabet, doesn't have options to adjust page elements, like font sizes and styles, which are typically used to distinguish sections like headings from body text. It relies on blank space to do that.

Freeman said that can make reading difficult, especially since available braille devices only display 20 characters at a time.

“It leads to these awkward line breaks,” Freeman said. “You're losing all that formatting information. And you're also kind of having this stilted awkward reading experience. And I mean, it's fine, but we can do better.”

The new standard will allow readers to access full pages of text, as well as make it easier to navigate through large files.

“With the current standard, you're relying on Ctrl-F to get to different parts of the book. So, if you need to go to page 30, you're doing Ctrl-F and finding every instance that has ‘30’ in that book,” Freeman said.

He said the new standard would make it possible to incorporate navigational components, like links, to allow for readers to jump from one page to the next. Freeman added it would enable devices to support both braille characters and graphics so that people can interact with them simultaneously.

“Right now, the braille and the graphics are separate files. And they're produced separately,” Freeman said. “By putting everything together, it'll all be bundled and a smooth, seamless experience.”

APH aims to have the first iteration of the new electronic braille standard in about a year, Freeman said. He added the work will continue for a couple of years after that, to allow people to interact with it and be able to provide developers with the feedback they need to fine tune it.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter. A native Palestinian, she’s interested in issues of diversity, access and themes of inequality. Jumaa aims to engage with residents and amplify their voices to achieve accountability, meaningful change and a more equitable Louisville. She previously covered housing and evictions for NPR member station VPM in Richmond, Virginia, where she received regional, Edward R. Murrow Awards for excellence in diversity, equity and inclusion — and in sound. The Virginia Associated Press Broadcast Awards also recognized Jumaa's reporting on Richmond’s public housing authority in its best continuing coverage category. She also published a series investigating two state museums’ records on matters of equity — both internally and to the public. When Jumaa’s not reporting on her next story, she’s likely making a mess in the kitchen, trying to find a body of water to swim in or spending time with her dogs Nico and Mr. Junior.
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