According to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), just 1% of the blind population is born without sight; the vast majority of the estimated 10 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired lost their vision later in life. In 1987, Andrew Chepaitis’s grandmother became part of that statistic: She started to lose her vision due to macular degeneration. It was this experience that would lead Chepaitis, 13 years later, to found ELIA Life Technology, a company that wants to mass-produce an easy-to-learn tactile reading system based on the Roman alphabet.
ELIA bills its system, called ELIA Frames, as an alternative to braille–particularly for people who learned how to read regular text before losing their vision. “My grandmother, who could finish the New York Times crosswords, couldn’t learn braille,” says Chepaitis. She wasn’t alone in that struggle: The NFB estimates that fewer than 10% of blind people can read braille. For older people especially, learning a new skill–much less one that involves sharp sensory skills–can prove difficult.
In Chepaitis’s mind, that’s because braille violates a number of design principles: It is not scaleable in the same way as a font size, for one, and braille dots are small and very close together. Importantly, braille is also a completely different system from the Roman alphabet, and therefore doesn’t build on the existing knowledge of a large portion of visually impaired people.
Yet braille has been around for nearly 200 years, and for the people who can read it, it has proved invaluable: According to Census bureau data, individuals with visual impairment have an estimated employment rate of 43%, but if the individual can use braille that rate rises to 85%. Because of this, some within the visual impairment community think that advocacy efforts and newly developed technology should be applied to increasing access to braille education, rather than inventing new systems from scratch.
ELIA takes a different position. The company, which is an honorable mention this year for Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Awards, has raised roughly $450,000 in angel investment since it was founded. It has received $2.7 million from organizations such as the National Institute on Aging and the National Eye Institute (divisions of the National Institutes of Health), the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NYSTAR. More recently, ELIA also worked to develop a touch printer in partnership with Hewlett-Packard, as well as a tactile display, both of which would serve to put ELIA in the hands of visually impaired people.
After 17 years of research and user testing, ELIA is hoping to bring the new system to the masses starting at the end of this year. In the age of audio books, speech-to-text, and new tactile technology for experiencing art, is an alternative to braille really necessary?
A System Routed In User-Friendly Design
The idea for the design of ELIA Frames didn’t originate with Chepaitis. Rather, his mother, who was studying design and human impact for her PhD at the time his grandmother lost her sight, developed the first iteration of the system. She took inspiration in NASA’s control panel design, which uses triangular, square, or circular frames around different buttons to allow NASA engineers to quickly and easily identify them. The system that Chepaitis’s mother designed relies on the same border system to differentiate one letter from the next in a sequence. Adding dots or lines inside of the frame gives the letters the characteristics of Roman letters.
Chepaitis’s mother let the system fall to the wayside. Meanwhile, Chepaitis earned a bachelors in industrial organizational psychology and an MBA, then went into finance. But he kept the system in the back of his mind, and in 2000 decided to leave the finance world to work on it full time. After earning his first round of seed funding for ELIA Life Technology a year later, Chepaitis and his team started testing the system against both braille and a raised version of the Roman alphabet.
“Our original design went through some challenges,” says Chepaitis. “To compare it to the other alphabets was helpful. We found what characteristics of a letter are tangible, or easily identifiable by touch.”
Over the years that ELIA has been up and running, the company has tested the alphabet on 175,000 participant responses. The first study included three groups of people, each of whom received 30 hours of training and testing. One group learned braille, one ELIA, and the other a system of raised Roman letters. The second study also included those three systems, but participants trained for an increased 60 hours of instruction and testing. In addition to testing for speed and understanding against other systems, ELIA researchers also tested the ELIA groups with random letterforms to see how those letters performed. They solicited feedback on the letters that participants struggled with and adjusted them accordingly.
The current ELIA Frame alphabet looks like this:
As explained in depth on ELIA’s website, the system works through variously shaped frames: a circle for letters A-D, a square for E-N, a house-shape for numbers, and so on. The letters take shape with the lines, dots, and openings added inside and around the exterior frames. With these embellishments, the letters appropriate characteristics of the Roman letters they represent: “C,” for instance, is three-fourths of a circle with a dot on the interior and top. “K” is a square frame with two lines inside like a “V” turned on its side, creating a Roman “K” with one side of the frame and the two legs. The most major changes from the first to second iteration, Chepaitis says, are that the shape of the frames–square, circle–became easier to identify at smaller sizes, and some of the interiors were tweaked to be easier to distinguish.
Chepaitis also points to two more design elements that are important to the current iteration of the alphabet: the spacing and the scaleability. The dots for braille are small and close together so that those proficient in it can perform reading speeds that are comparable to sighted people–but that also results in a steeper learning curve. With ELIA, the team found that letters could be close together but distinguishable because of the frames, allowing for ease of learning without slowing readers down. Because it is closer to a Roman alphabet, ELIA can be scaled up or down the same as a font. By contrast, there is only one standard size of braille, though “Jumbo braille” is sometimes used to teach new braille students (the difference with Jumbo braille is that the dots are spaced slightly farther apart).
Does Braille Need An Alternative?
ELIA is far from the first tactile reading system to come up against braille. In fact, the Moon alphabet, created by William Moon in 1845 is also a system of embossed printing based on Roman letterforms. Rather than dots, Moon type is made of raised curves and lines, and like ELIA, it is meant to be easier to learn for those who were not born blind.
According to Chris Danielson, the director of public relations at the National Federation of the Blind, the problem with Roman letter-based reading systems has historically been that they are slower to read and bulkier to produce than the braille dots. “In order to use raised print and to use [the ELIA] system, you have to trace the outline of the letter,” he says. “You are never going to build up the kind of reading speed and fluency that you would want.”
Danielson, who is blind and reads braille, and his colleagues at NFB are proponents of braille. They are skeptical of any alternative system that positions itself as easier to learn, having seen systems come and go in the past. They are also wary that enthusiasm for a less proven system might take away from the progress they’ve made in educating people to use braille. (Danielson hadn’t heard of ELIA before I reached out for an interview. He and two colleagues tested it out before our call.)
Danielson says that the dot patterns of the braille alphabet, numbers, and punctuation can be learned in a matter of days or weeks. But learning to write braille–and learning the additional contractions used to make it more compact and quicker to read and write–typically takes closer to six to nine months with a daily course. Many of the people in the training centers the NFB are associated with are adults undergoing rehabilitation. “This idea that braille is hard to learn, we would argue that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says.
With ELIA, on the other hand, Chepaitis claims that the average person can read an extended text after about three hours of training. Thomas Reid, a vision loss advocate who works with the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind, estimates that it took him about an hour to learn the ELIA Frames and another half hour to become comfortable reading it. He first tried it in 2015 for an audio story he was producing for Gatewave, a radio reading service for the blind. Reid, who lost his sight 14 years ago as a result of cancer, is trained to read braille, but only uses it for basic reading like organizing his file system or finding his hotel room in an elevator. “With braille I have to do a translation in my brain,” he says. “ELIA is easier for me because I know the Roman alphabet, it was my first access to language.”
Reid says one of the most appealing aspects of the ELIA alphabet to him is the flexibility. Since ELIA can be scaled up or down in any font size, he sees it as a good way for people to label things in their house–something he notes is particularly helpful for older people who have lost their vision and are struggling to regain their independence. (Reid says Pennsylvania Council of the Blind often helps older people with this task, because government assistance typically prioritizes helping people who can still work.)
Reid doesn’t envision people reading books in ELIA, betting instead on visually impaired individuals using audio books or text-to-speech to read full-length books. “In general, sighted or not, we’re moving toward the fully digital book,” he says. Reid does note that it would be a good way to communicate with loved ones. “The other day, my wife was expressing how she missed writing me a note,” he says. “That’s difficult with braille.” With ELIA, he says, she wouldn’t even need to learn it, she could just type it in the ELIA font on a computer and print it out. ELIA also claims that its system is easy for sighted people to use, since it looks so similar to the Roman alphabet.
Getting ELIA In The Hands Of The Visually Impaired
The note-writing scenario Reid described relies on the production of the ELIA printer, which the company wants to get into people’s homes as well as educational spaces and training centers. This is one of the most promising aspects of ELIA as a company: It’s one thing to design a reading system that people can pick up quickly, but it’s only useful if it exists off-screen and people actually have access to it. ELIA’s HP inkjet touch printer, which will be able to print any raised alphabet, will be for sale by the end of 2017 on the ELIA website for $3,000. After that, ELIA is launching pilot programs in places like the Brooklyn Library and other locations in New York City, which will train people on the system. Eventually, they plan to expand to other cities nationwide. ELIA is also developing a display that will be able to predict both ELIA and braille.
The NFB would prefer to see the kind of money ELIA has raised and the technology it has developed go toward improving braille and training people to use it. Danielson also says that the displays that ELIA is working on might be better put to use for graphics and artwork, rather than a rival reading system to braille. And as Reid points out, increased audio book production and text-to-speech initiatives have made it easier for visually impaired individuals to have access to all types of literature. Audible.com has a large readership, both sighted and not, and the Library of Congress offers books in audio, available through both free digital player or iPhone app. Additionally, many major museums worldwide have been experimenting with ways to make their collections accessible to the visually impaired, even investing in 3D digital reproductions of famous paintings.
In Chepaitis’s view, these are all tools in a toolbox, and there’s room for ELIA as well. “The purpose of our alphabet is to help people to achieve literacy,” he says. “If you can’t write an email because you haven’t engaged with letters and words and punctuation, your employment opportunities are going to be limited. We want to enable people to gain literacy and even experience the joys of literacy. If a person wants to read the A Tale of Two Cities or the Book of John, they should be able to.”