Ever since 1824, when Louis Braille invented his tactile braille system, low-vision and blind individuals have had a proven method to read printed material. The system relies on a cell composed of six raised dots, the specific combinations corresponding to individual letters and numbers, and it has been optimized over the years so that dot depth, size, and distance are now all standardized. This makes for the fastest and most accurate reading.
For those who are blind at birth or lose their sight very early on, braille is their first and only learned font. But what if a person loses their sight later in life, after they’ve become accustomed to visual text? Is braille the most efficient and effective system for them? According to Andrew Chepaitis, that may not be the case. Chepaitis, a former equity research analyst, founded ELIA Life Technology, a company that is working to create a tactile alphabet that resembles Roman characters and is tailored to people who lose their sight later in life. The company makes the bold claim that the ELIA system is “the world’s most intuitive tactile reading system,” and that people who lose sight and are already out of school are thought to be less likely to learn braille than those who start young.  However, these claims are stirring controversy in the braille community; many people question if an alternative system is even necessary.
The ELIA system, called a “font” by the company, houses each character in a frame that guides readers from one letter to the next. Circular frames bracket the symbols for A-D and O-S, and square frames bracket the letters E-N and T-Z. Numbers all have house-shaped frames. The frame shapes serve both to mimic the Roman alphabet (for example: O, P, and S are all curvy letters, whereas X, Y, and Z are all boxy) and to help distinguish different segments of the alphabet. The end result is a series of raised pictographs that mostly look (and feel) like blocky, stylized versions of the Roman alphabet. And, unlike braille, these tactile letters can be scaled to any size the user requires. The team has plans to release a specialized HP Inkjet printer in the fall of 2018 that can create all types of raised imagery.
Andrew’s mother, Elia Chepaitis, originally designed the font in 1987 as part of her degree in human factors engineering and design, but she abandoned it on becoming a professor of information systems at Fairfield University. Andrew Chepaitis always felt that the project was worthwhile, though, and he started up his company in 2000 with the idea of expanding on the idea. Since then, he and his team have put the font through a battery of tests. All told, they’ve analyzed 175,000 responses from 350 participants, including blindfolded sighted participants and visually impaired or legally blind participants of all ages, and they’ve tweaked the specifics of the frames to take into account the feedback they’ve received. And while he admits that any printed pages would be quite large due to ELIA’s oversized letters and, at the moment, expensive, he isn’t deterred.
Overall, responses to ELIA are mixed. “It is a very interesting concept, and it’s neat that they’re trying to come up with something that could be usable,” says Ike Presley, National Project Manager for the American Foundation for the Blind. But he has concerns about how ELIA cites some inaccurate statistics about braille literacy.
According to ELIA, it takes 10 months to learn braille and 5 to 11 years to achieve a 23 WPM reading speed (by comparison, visual readers average 200-250 WPM). However, 10 months is just the length of a braille course at the Hadley School for the Blind, and, according to Chepaitis, “We don’t [really] know what it takes.” In addition, the 5- to 11-year figure comes from the book Reading by Touch, which was written more than 20 years ago, notes Rebecca Sheffield, senior policy researcher at the American Foundation for the Blind.
Thomas Reid, though, who lost his sight in 2002 at age 35, makes a case in favor of learning the ELIA system. He spotted ELIA on Twitter, and he reached out to Chepaitis to learn more about the font and to potentially highlight it on his podcast, “Reid My Own Radio.”
“If you’ve been reading print all your life and now you have to take in information tactilely, it’s different,” he says. “It takes a lot of brain power.” Studying braille, he says, required intense concentration to think through each letter, and that effort frequently left him mentally exhausted.
“I didn’t find that with ELIA,” he says, adding that within an hour, he learned the alphabet and was relatively comfortable identifying the individual letters.
ELIA’s tests suggest that others have a similar experience. After 60 hours of focused training with no outside practice, focus group participants reached an average reading speed of 2.8 WPM using a 0.7 cm font size, and up to nearly seven WPM using a 1.1 cm font size. Some were even able to process up to 25 WPM after training. The company also tested braille readers’ learning speed, again using 60 hours of focused training. Participants read standard braille (roughly 0.7 cm) at just under one WPM, and at 3.1 WPM with 1.1 cm, an average comparable to the small ELIA font.
A great deal of concern about ELIA in the blind community seems to stem from the idea that it would compete with or replace braille, which would draw away some of the already limited resources and funding for braille instruction. Chepaitis indicates that is not his intent. What he hopes is that ELIA will be an alternative for those who did not learn braille at such an opportune age.
“At the core, [our hope is that] down the road, people will be able to choose whatever font they want,” he concludes.
 Wei-Haas, Maya. (May 1, 2018). “Could This New Tactile Font Help People Who Lose Their Sight Late In Life?” Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/could-this-new-tactile-font-help-people-who-lose-their-sight-late-in-life-180968917/