Daniel Sullivan

Refreshable Braille Display: Types of RBD, How it Works and Why it Matters in Web Design

Digital accessibility is about ensuring your online content can be accessed by as many people as possible—including those who use assistive devices to read braille.

Some people who can read braille may use audio-only screen readers. However, listening to speech is often more time-consuming than reading and typing in braille. As well, many people who are legally blind can perceive shapes and colors—so they may prefer to browse using a screen reader as well as a mouse.

That’s where refreshable braille displays (RBDs) come in.

In this article, we will explain the basics of RBDs—and how to ensure your website is designed to improve the experiences of people who use them.

What is a refreshable braille display?

A refreshable braille display (or RBD) is a tactile electronic device that—when connected to another device such as a computer, smartphone or tablet—displays text as braille. But how does that work?

How does a refreshable braille display work?

The flat-surface RBD raises and lowers small pins in different combinations, reflecting the words on the screen of the connected device.

Visually impaired computer users can then move their fingers across the ever-changing braille cells on their RBC—enabling them to read text output. The RBD translates one line of text into braille at a time, using the content from the other device. As the cursor moves from line-to-line across and down the screen, this results in braille that is continuously changing—and therefore “refreshable.”

Types of refreshable braille displays

There are three main types of RBDs—stand-alone braille displays, notetakers, and smart display devices. Each works slightly differently, but they share similar characteristics.

Stand-alone braille displays

This type of braille display can vary in terms of the number of braille cells available. Meanwhile, some may have a keyboard for braille entry, while others are purely for displaying braille. Other common hardware features on the stand-alone braille display include cursor routing buttons and keys for navigation.


Portable and with the ability to connect to the internet, notetakers are commonly used by students for classroom work and test-taking. Because notetakers are compatible with many applications, this type of RBD can offer a wide range of features and functionality—from simple notetaking to much more sophisticated tasks like browsing the internet, streaming music and YouTube videos, reading books aloud, and even doing math equations.

Smart display devices

This type of RBD is somewhat of a mix of stand-alone displays and notetakers, but with less functionality. They are often portable, smaller, and more compatible with utility functions like device clocks, calendars, and electronic document readers. Some can connect to multiple devices at once and support both Bluetooth and USB connectivity. However, while users can access and store content on a computer, smartphone or tablet, a smart display device cannot connect to the internet for browsing or streaming.

Is your website accessible for braille users?

Refreshable Braille Displays or RBDs are only able to produce accurate braille when websites publish barrier-free content.

That means companies must factor things into their design such as alternative text for images, and full transcripts and closed captioning for videos. But those are just two examples of many (far too many to mention here)!

So how do you go about identifying all those design elements and/or changes that need to be made?

It all comes down to partnering with a digital accessibility audit professional—one who knows exactly how to use assistive technologies like RBDs, and who can properly test your website and online content on behalf of braille users.

Today, many of these auditors have visual impairments themselves—making them the ideal go-to experts for creating an enjoyable online experience, not to mention ensuring your website conforms with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and global accessibility standards.

Interested in learning more about offering a smooth, streamlined, compliant and equitable online experience for all—including people who use RBDs?

Contact our expert team today.