PSU professors release new instructional braille app
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: November 26, 2019
Portland State Profs. Holly Lawson and Sam Sennott just released their Unified English Braille (UEB) Prep app for smartphones, and it’s already in hot demand.
Distributing the free app to as many people as possible is just what they wanted.

“Our goal is to get braille out to anyone who wants to learn it and to make it motivating and fun,” Lawson said.

Lawson and Sennott, faculty in the College of Education (COE), landed a $550,000 federal grant to create the instructional smartphone app in 2014.

The idea behind UEB Prep is to make it easy to learn the complex and fairly new UEB code, especially when it comes to students, busy parents, and people who are blind or visually impaired. The app, which features learning games and details on braille in small, digestible bites, has been well-received. Since its release in mid-September for Apple phones, a hungry market has gobbled it up, with 7,000 downloads.

Having download numbers in the thousands for an educational app is a big deal when more than half of smartphone users download zero apps per month on average and most downloads are of Apple gaming apps, according to Statista. Soon, more users could jump on board since UEB Prep will be released to Android phones in 2020.

The reasons for the app’s attraction are simple: Braille is complicated and the UEB format is relatively new. Braille once involved separate codes for math or science materials and literary contexts, but in 2016, the Braille Authority of North America established UEB as the standardized form of braille, so many people are still getting to know UEB, Lawson said.

“UEB is a general purpose system that can be used across all contexts, with the exception of music braille, which is an international code,” Lawson explained.

As for braille’s complexity, a braille cell is composed of six raised dots with 64 possible combinations, and this sophisticated written code also has more than 400 rules. Its elaborate nature can make UEB difficult to absorb.

In the past decade she’s been teaching, Lawson, currently the coordinator of the Visually Impaired Learner Program in the COE, has observed that while many of her students pick up braille easily, others struggle.

“One dot off, and it’s a whole different word or a whole different letter, and I think it was particularly discouraging for some students,” she said.

Lawson had also heard parents of children with visual impairments saying that they also want to learn UEB, but don’t have the time or resources. She came up with the idea of an app to help students and busy parents them, but soon realized that people who are blind could access the app, too, with braille displays and voice technology.

True, there are braille teaching apps, but Lawson said they are often designed for laptops, desktops, or iPads. She said what the market needed was an app for the always in-hand smartphones.

The app also should sport quick, simple lessons that users, including busy parents, could do in line at the grocery store. Lawson wanted it to be worth the time busy parents would be investing.

“There are a few other apps for parents, but a lot of them don’t go beyond a few letters of the alphabet,” Lawson noted.

So, Lawson invented something that went well beyond a few letters, offering many lessons, but in small bites. In 2014, she landed a half a million dollar, five-year federal Rehabilitation Services Administration grant to create UEB Prep. For their project, Lawson and Sennott enlisted the help of the blind community and experts in the field of visual impairment. Lawson and Sennott also teamed up with the design and development-centered PSU Universal Design Lab, and mobile app developers from Cyrkus, a Portland-based development firm.

Sennott said when Lawson approached him with her idea, he saw an opportunity to provide a needed service to an underserved population. He was one of many hands who helped on the technical side of the app’s creation.

“This first app represents a vision that has been forged through service to people with vision disabilities and their families,” Sennott said. “Dr. Lawson’s extensive experience with braille made this app possible.”

The final product features knowledge cards that clearly identify the rules for UEB, which can be arranged in a playlist to jog a user’s memory, and UEB Prep also features courses, including games. One game involves falling letters or words, one after another, that a user has to type in as braille—and a user can adjust the speed of the falling letters or words to intensify the challenge.

“It’s a little like Tetris,” Lawson said, referring to a game of falling shapes created in the 1980s and popularized in the 1990s. “We wanted lessons that would draw in parents.”

That seems to be the case. Soon after Lawson had realized her vision, she discovered that users had started responding to the app as she’d hoped.

During beta testing of four parents of blind or visually impaired children, one parent used the app to practice braille while a mechanic rotated that tester’s tires. That response thrilled Lawson after five years of hard work.

“It made it all worthwhile,” she said.

Photo 1: Prof. Holly Lawson holds up her phone with the Unified English Braille Prep app displayed on it. Photo by Jillian Daley

Photo 2: The Unified English Braille Prep app features games and short lessons. Photo by Jillian Daley

Photo 3: Prof. Sam Sennott says the UEB Prep app “represents a vision that has been forged through service to people with vision disabilities and their families.” Photo from PSU files

To share stories about the College of Education, email Jillian Daley.