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Frequently Asked Questions



Question 1: Is there a need for an alternative to Braille?

Question 2: Have Braille readers always represented such a small percentage of the visually impaired population?

Question 3: Why can't people just learn and read Braille?

Question 4: For what activities will people use the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

Question 5: Why do persons who have a visual impairment need a tactile alphabet? Can't they use voice technology and books on tape to do all their reading?

Question 6: Why does the ELIA® Alphabet look the way it does?

Question 7: Why does Braille look the way it does?

Question 8: How is the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet produced?

Question 9: How will the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet benefit people who have a visual impairment?

Question 10: How will the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet benefit the families of people who have a visual impairment?

Question 11: How will the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet benefit society?

Question 12: Are books, newspaper articles and other reading material produced in the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

Question 13: At what size is the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet presented?

Question 14: What other tactile alphabets are available and how are they different from the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

Question 15: Why didn't someone design / think of the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet design before?

Question 16: How has the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet changed since its first design?

Question 17: Where can someone learn the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

Question 18: Will Braille readers stop reading Braille and start reading ELIA?

Question 19: Does the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet have contractions?

Question 20: Is ELIA meant to replace Braille?



Question 1:

Is there a need for an alternative to Braille?

We believe there is.

In the U.S. there are 8.9 million people who are visually impaired and 1.8 million who are severely visually impaired. Only 59,000 people in the U.S. are able to use Braille.

For those who use Braille, however, it provides enormous independence. Indeed, Braille has liberated a whole class of people from a condition of illiteracy and dependence. Braille makes it possible for a blind person to assume a role of equality in modern society, and it can unlock the potential within him to become a contributing member of society (Nemeth, 1988). Visually impaired persons who are Braille users are able to achieve higher employment rates and are able to advance further in their educations than non-Braille users due in large part to their use of Braille. Unfortunately, it is apparent that many people who have a visual impairment are unable to read Braille.

Additional links:
NCHS estimates on Braille usage and the full report in .pdf format
U.S. Census Bureau estimates on visual impairment

Question 1 Follow-Up

What evidence is there that Braille positively impacts the lives of those who use it / how could ELIA impact the lives of those who do not use Braille?

It is estimated that 82% of Braille readers use Braille only for labeling and note taking, yet most Braille users credit Braille as one of the main reasons they are able to achieve high levels of independence, employment, continued literacy and psychological well-being (Schroeder, 1989). Functioning is higher for Braille readers who typically have little residual vision, than for non-Braille readers with visual impairment but significant residual vision. Employment rates are one example of this phenomenon. Braille readers enjoy a higher estimated employment rate (56%) than people who do not read Braille and have severe visual impairment (23%) (Ryles, 1996) or non-severe visual impairment (44%) (McNiel, 1997). While the degree of vision loss is highly correlated with the loss of functioning and employment, this strong trend within the visually impaired population does not extend to Braille users, who typically have little or no residual vision and yet have higher employment rates than those with significant vision. If ELIA were utilized by the visually impaired who do not read Braille, it could dramatically improve employment rates and independence among the visually impaired.

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Question 2:

Have Braille readers always represented such a small percentage of the visually impaired population?

As the demographics of the country have changed, so have the demographics of the visually impaired community. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 12.1% of people over the age of 65 have a visual impairment. Consequently, with the growth of the over 65 population, there has been a significant jump in the number of visually impaired seniors. These persons are the least likely to learn Braille.

Among the under 65, there are also more non-Braille readers. This can be attributed to the mainstreaming of visually impaired students within our education system and to improvements in voice generation technology and audio technology. Also, with improved medical care, those who have a slight visual impairment at a young age are now able to maintain the majority of their vision into adulthood. Unfortunately, they often find Braille difficult to learn as an adult.

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Question 3:

Why can't people just learn and read Braille?

For someone who was not born blind and who lost their vision after the age of 21, Braille appears to be very difficult to learn, as evidenced by how few new users there are per year. Indeed, we estimate that of the more than 750,000 who become visually impaired every year, there are fewer than 1,500 new Braille readers each year (0.2%.) The reason so few learn and read Braille is uncertain. It may be because as people age, their tactile sensitivity (acuity) declines to the point where they cannot successfully distinguish Braille characters. It may be that it is more difficult to learn new skills such as a new alphabet as people grow older. It may be that so few sighted people know Braille that people losing their vision find little support and assistance among their family members and friends, so they do not pursue it. Why so few older readers read Braille is not entirely certain, however, the reality is that 99% of people who lose their vision do not have a viable tactile means by which to read newspapers, books and labels on canned goods, audio tapes, CDs and pharmaceuticals.

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Question 4:

For what activities will people use the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

It is expected that people will use ELIA® in much the same way that Braille readers use Braille. An estimated 83% of Braille readers use Braille only for labeling and brief note taking and the other 17% of Braille readers (about 10,000 people in the U.S.) use Braille for labeling, note taking and for extensive reading. They also use voice technology and books on tape for their reading.

If ELIA were used in a similar fashion to Braille by the non-Braille severely visually impaired population then 1.5 million people would be using ELIA for labels and brief notes and about 300,000 would be using ELIA for all their reading needs. However, given that it has been shown that the ELIA® Alphabet is significantly easier to learn than Braille, it is possible that ELIA’s readership rates could extend beyond the severely visually impaired community to include the visually impaired community of 8.9 million people in the U.S.

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Question 5:

Why do persons who have a visual impairment need a tactile alphabet? Can't they use voice technology and books on tape to do all their reading?

Voice technology and books on tape are essential tools for people who have a visual impairment. However, many daily activities cannot be accomplished by using such technology. For example, reading one's lectures to a class, preparing a meal, reading a telephone list and distinguishing between different audiotapes and canned goods cannot be accomplished through voice. Clearly, a tactile alphabet can result in increased independence in daily activities for people who lose their vision.

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Question 6:

Why does the ELIA® Alphabet look the way it does?

The ELIA® Tactile Alphabet was designed to incorporate familiar elements of the common Roman alphabet within a system of frames. The familiar elements make the alphabet easy for people to learn and the frames enable readers to read the letters quickly and accurately. Similar engineering principles were used in creating Palm Pilot Graffiti. The Principles Behind the ELIA® Alphabet Design are available. Information on Palm Graffiti is available at the Palm website.

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Question 7:

Why does Braille look the way it does?

There are many theories on why Louis Braille designed his code the way he did. One belief is that he embraced the use of dots because they were the most technologically feasible and least expensive method of producing tactile texts using the technology of his day (1821). A major advantage of the Braille Code over alternative alphabets of his day was that blind persons could produce texts on their own with readily available inexpensive technology. Their independence from sighted helpers, expensive presses and complicated tools was a major advantage of the code over other tactile codes. Indeed, that the code could be arranged using inexpensive technology by the blind was a major advance. All the blind needed was a small, inexpensive slate and stylus.

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Question 8:

How is the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet produced?

Presently, the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet is produced one of two ways: either with a modified Xerox / Tektronix Phaser 300 Printer, which can print any text from a computer onto standard paper; or, from a Hewlett Packard inkjet printer, which can print any text from a computer onto a special polystyrene paper and a special heating unit. In the future, the company plans to offer products such as other computer printers and manual and electronic label-makers that will enable users to produce the ELIA® Alphabet for individualized applications.

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Question 9:

How will the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet benefit people who have a visual impairment?

Reading is a fundamental, necessary task for independence, employment and quality of life. By enabling the visually impaired to live with greater independence, ELIA® will lower the health care costs of the visually impaired and improve their quality of life.

Over 35% of the visually impaired have daily activities that they have difficulty completing without assistance. With the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet, people who have a visual impairment will be able to do more daily activities without the assistance of technology or another person. In addition to reading without voice or audio technology they will be able to independently perform tasks such as preparing meals, taking medication, dressing, using appliances, and typing. With the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet they will be better able to work and take care of their own affairs.

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Question 10:

How will the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet benefit the families of people who have a visual impairment?

Most of the visually impaired who require assistance rely on an unpaid caregiver, who is a family member, spouse or friend. Eight-five percent of informal caregivers provide an average of four hours a day of care, 365 days a year (per the Home Health Care Association of America). The toll on the caregiver is enormous. Caregivers experience higher rates of depression (58% are clinically depressed), increased health care utilization, higher mortality rates (+68% for those suffering from depression), lower employment rates and wages, greater restrictions in their social activities, and higher incidence of family conflict. According to the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Alliance for Caregivers, 49% of employees adjust their workday in order to care for an elder. Additionally, while the elderly visually impaired population is increasing, the pool of available caregivers is decreasing.

The ELIA® Tactile Alphabet will enable caregivers to provide better care with fewer resources while their visually impaired family members enjoy the higher quality of life that greater independence brings.

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Question 11:

How will the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet benefit society?

Visual impairment takes a huge toll on society. With the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet, people who have a visual impairment will have a new tool with which to gain or retain employment. They will require less care from paid and unpaid caregivers. They will be able to independently maintain better health. They will be able to achieve greater academic success if they pursue continuing education. Additionally, ELIA readers will be able to better function within society because sighted co-workers, family members and friends will be able to easily read and understand their ELIA materials.

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Question 12:

Are books, newspaper articles and other reading material produced in the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

Individual readers can easily produce materials in the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet with a computer, an internet connection and a Tektronix Phaser 300 printer. The readers load text onto a computer from the Internet or from a computer disk, then they change the font to ELIA, size the text to their required height and print. Any electronic text or book can now be produced with ELIA.

In the future, ELIA Life Technology will be developing and producing a tactile tablet. This tablet will be similar to mobile computer devices that the sighted presently use, except that the cells of the display screen will protract and retract from the surface of the table to create tactile images in ELIA(or Braille). The tactile tablet will enable visually impaired readers to access any computer text and carry volumes of information with them.

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Question 13:

At what size is the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet presented?

The ELIA® Tactile Alphabet uses frames that enable it to be scaleable to any size. Individual readers can read ELIA at whatever size they choose.

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Question 14:

What other tactile alphabets are available and how are they different from the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

Aside from Braille, there are also tactile alphabets called the Moon Alphabet and the Fishburne Alphabet. The Moon Alphabet has been used in the U.K. since its invention in 1845 and is used primarily by people who lose their vision later in life and who find it easier to learn than Braille because many of its letters share characteristics of the Roman alphabet. Its designed was influenced by what technology was available in 1845 and not necessarily by what symbols are easiest to learn and read. Each Moon symbol was produced with one of fourteen copper bands that were pressed into a piece of paper.

You may go to a website that illustrates the Moon Alphabet.

The Fishburne Alphabet uses symbols on rectangular backgrounds similar to dominoes. The system divides the alphabet into five sections so that readers can use deductive reasoning to accurately read. It uses simple shapes that are not representative of the Roman alphabet but that can be produced using a custom label maker. For more information on the Fishburne Alphabet contact: Fishburne Enterprises, 140 E. Stetson Ave., #319, Hemet, CA 92543-7139; phone: (909) 765-9276

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Question 15:

Why didn't someone design / think of the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet design before?

Prior to modern computer printers, printing a scalable alphabet like the ELIA® Alphabet would have been expensive and difficult. Perhaps the limitations of past technology limited peoples' imaginations. Also, the field of Human Factors Engineering and Ergonomics is a new field that was only born 50 years ago and only gained momentum over the past 20 years. Perhaps the professionals in the field had not had time to apply their theories to tactile reading.

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Question 16:

How has the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet changed since its first design?

The ELIA® Alphabet has been refined in two ways since it was originally designed. The outside of the square frames has been altered slightly so that readers can more easily tell whether a frame is a square or a circle. While distinguishing between the two frame shapes is not difficult at large sizes, the distinction between the frames becomes more difficult as the letters are reduced in size. The other change in the alphabet was that some of the letters' interiors were simplified and made more easily distinguishable from one another. For example, the two lines inside the "K" were moved from the far right of the frame to the far left. This improved accuracy for that letter by nearly 50%. Others were also altered to improve accuracy rates and recognition speed

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Question 17:

Where can someone learn the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet?

If you are sighted, you can learn the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet on this site. If you are visually impaired, call ELIA Life Technology at (212) 327-2550 and we will send you an introductory package with which you can learn the alphabet. If possible, we will arrange assistance as well.

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Question 18:

Will Braille readers stop reading Braille and start reading ELIA?

Braille readers will not change over to ELIA. Most Braille readers have been reading Braille for years, if not decades. ELIA would probably be as difficult for a Braille reader to learn as Braille is for a former print reader to learn.

Question 18 Follow-up:

Will Braille readers have less access to Braille materials and aids if an alternative tactile alphabet is introduced?

With a greater number of tactile readers, more aids and material will be available for both Braille and ELIA readers. New production means will be economically feasible because of the larger market. Additionally, new competition for tactile reading customers will improve the quality of the products and the responsiveness of the present companies in the field.

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Question 19:

Does the ELIA® Tactile Alphabet have contractions?

Not yet, but it will eventually. However, ELIA readers will have the choice of using the contractions or not, as they save space and improve reading speed but add complexity.

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Question 20:

Is ELIA meant to replace Braille?

No, Braille will always be in use, as it is the most efficient way for Braille readers to get important information. ELIA is for those who choose not to or are unable to read Braille.

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