With Her Mother's Eyesight Failing, Elia Chepaitis Creates a New, Simpler Alternative to Braille

updated 05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 01:00AM

In October 1986, Elia Chepaitis learned that her 74-year-old mother, an avid reader, was going blind. Chepaitis was devastated. "My mother is so vibrant and alive," says Chepaitis, 45. "I couldn't stand the idea of her being shut out because she could no longer read." Then Chepaitis' despair turned to anger when she tried to learn Braille in order to teach the raised-dot touch-reading system to her mother.

An assistant professor of information systems at Fairfield (Conn.) University, Chepaitis has a doctorate in social and economic history, a master's in Russian studies, an MBA in computer information systems and international business, and postdoctoral training in industrial engineering. Yet in spite of her extensive educational background, she couldn't get the hang of Braille. "It was the first thing I'd ever encountered that I could not learn," she says. "It was so upsetting. I didn't even want to show it to my mother."

Invented in the 19th century by Louis Braille, a blind Frenchman who taught math, grammar and geography, the system has changed little over the years. Adapted from a military code for night communications, Braille uses raised dots arranged in 63 patterns, representing letters, numbers, simple words and even diphthongs. When Chepaitis discovered that about 90 percent of the blind—the majority of whom learned the alphabet when they were sighted—cannot read Braille, she was hardly surprised. Nor was her mother, Elia Vallone, of Cranston, R.I., when Chepaitis reluctantly showed her the system. Says Vallone, "It was way too complicated and out of the question for me to learn."

That was enough for Chepaitis. "The thought of my mother not having an appropriate and readily learnable technology was completely unacceptable to me," she says. Having just completed courses in human and industrial engineering, Chepaitis was convinced she could invent something simpler. So she set out to create a better system, racing against her mother's approaching blindness. (Vallone suffers from macular degeneration and has already lost all her sight in her right eye.)

Using her family and college classes as guinea pigs, Chepaitis perfected her new system in about two months. "It took me about a week to write the first version," she says. "I tried to pick one dominant characteristic from each letter of the alphabet to use. That's one of the problems with Braille, I believe. It bears no relationship to the alphabet as we know it. My raised symbols are built upon a lot of cognitive theory, which Braille isn't." In Braille, argues Chepaitis, it's hard to tell where one letter ends and another begins. In her system each letter is set off by an individual frame. Capital letters are set off by a double frame.

Defenders of Braille say it is really no more difficult for the blind to learn than any other language. And the director of the National Federation of the Blind, Kenneth Jernigan, a Braille reader himself, believes that Chepaitis' system of simplified raised letters "is a wretched alternative. Dots are much easier than lines to feel. Frames, diamonds and boxes, I believe, would slow a reader down."

Dorothy Jackman, a user and teacher of Braille at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., is more accommodating. "Braille is not meant for everyone," says Jackman. "Mrs. Chepaitis may have come up with a system that works extremely well for those who were previously sighted. Besides, there is room for a new system, and people who completed their education long before they went blind may need another."

Those people now have one. Named ELIA, after Chepaitis' mother, Chepaitis' new system's acronym officially stands for Elementary Imprint Assistance. Chepaitis obtained a patent for ELIA last fall, and while it is not yet taught at any schools for the blind, she hopes to present her system to national associations for the blind in the near future.

Namesake Vallone laughs when she recalls her own initial response to ELIA. When her proud daughter gave her a copy of how the symbols would look, "I said, 'Well, that's nice, dear,' and I put it away in the piano bench." Vallone dug it out a few weeks later and was amazed at how quickly she understood it. "It was so easy, it took me by surprise," she says. "I thought, 'How did that darling come up with something so extraordinary?' Isn't it wonderful that something this good can come out of something bad?"

—By Ned Geeslin, with S. Avery Brown in Cranston

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