18th April 2018
This company wants to replace braille with a controversial new font
Meet ELIA, a new tactile reading system.
Learning to read and write was a challenge for Louis Braille. While many kids struggle to read, Braille was blinded at the age of three by an infection following an accident in his father’s leathering workshop. Unable to see words on the page, his best chance at literacy was at his fingertips—literally.
Frustrated by existing communication options (most blind people used the Haüy system, where Latin letters were embossed in paper), Braille set about developing his own tactile writing system when he was still a child. By the age of 15, he’d created a simple, efficient system of dots and spaces contained in compact cells that allowed a reader to comprehend each letter in a single touch.
Since its creation in 1829, braille has remained the predominant tactile communication system in the world. It’s been modified for dozens of languages and allowed countless people to read and write. But braille, which is read by fewer than 10 percent of blind or visually impaired people, is far from perfect. That’s why, almost 200 years after braille was created, Andrew Chepaitis decided to disrupt it.
Chepaitis is the president and CEO of ELIA. For almost 20 years, he and his colleagues have been developing a new tactile learning system that was more intuitive and accessible than braille.
“The reason Braille used dots was because the easiest way to create a tactile alphabet was to take the point of a pen and push into a piece of paper,” says Chepaitis. “That was great. That was a revolution.” But, he argues, technology has advanced beyond pen and paper, so tactile fonts should, too.
Chepaitis has thrown out braille’s dots in favor of a system of raised symbols form from curved and straight lines. Whereas braille was loosely based on a military code, ELIA mimics the shape of typical English characters wherever possible. An ELIA C looks almost identical to the C seen in the standard alphabet, except the ELIA C rises above the paper. But for a letter like W, which a tactile reader could trace in many directions (is it a V? Two Vs? One W?), ELIA has completely transformed the character. In the ELIA system, a W is a small box with a triangle wedge at the bottom, essentially a simplification of the switchback in a standard W.