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Queen's student developing device to help learning braille

A NEW TOOL: Queen’s Master’s engineering student Rhianne Lopez surveyed potential users in the Philippines for their specific wants and needs before developing a new device people can use to learn braille.
INDEPENDENT STUDY: BraillePad allows a user to drill themselves on braille without the need for expensive computers or as much one-on-one time with a teacher.


The Philippines is a nation of 100 million scattered across some 7,100 islands. For people with visual impairments living in isolated areas of the country, or without sufficient income to access specialized services, braille training can be out of reach. But for someone who isn’t able to see printed text and who has limited access to computers, knowing how to read braille can be the difference between independence and dependence.

To help with that problem, Queen’s Master’s engineering student, Rhianne Lopez (co-supervised by Dr Claire Davies, and Dr Shane Pinder of Queen's engineering) is developing an educational tool that could enable people to learn braille more independently. Called BraillePad, it’s a portable, durable, and inexpensive device that lets the user practice learning braille without a desktop computer or help from an instructor.

“It needed to be lightweight, affordable, have tactile features, and be engaging, so kids who would be using the device wouldn’t get bored,” says Lopez. 

Here’s how it works: Rather than printed letters, braille text is made up of sequences of rectangular cells. Each cell contains within it positions for as many as six dots aligned in two parallel columns of three. The dots are proud of the surface of the cells, allowing the user to detect them with their fingers by touch. The number, position, and arrangement of dots present in any cell can correspond to printed characters. It’s a clever way to read without seeing but it’s a bit like a code or a language that takes time and practice to learn.

“The BraillePad device reads aloud a four-letter word for the user to spell out in braille,” says Lopez. “The user then arranges pegs in a pegboard to represent the number and arrangement of dots in braille for each of the four characters in the given word. If they put the pegs in the holes that represent the correct letters, it will tell them they are right. If not, it gives them another shot at it. If they get it wrong three times, it will tell them the correct answer.”

It allows the user to drill themselves on braille independently.

To ensure she developed a device people could and would actually use, Lopez conducted an advance survey in the Philippines of those with visual impairments, those who teach braille, and those who have already learned braille. It was all necessary to better understand the specific needs for learning and teaching braille among that population in that location.

Lopez is planning usability testing of the prototype BraillePad at Queen’s in the coming months.

“I’m also going to be making a video – with sound obviously – so people in the Philippines can get to know the device and then I can ask them whether or not it meets their needs,” says Lopez.

For the future, Lopez says she plans to build a career making devices for people with disabilities.

“I want to be able to help people do the things they want to do,” she says.