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Is audio technology pushing Braille into the background? In the West, yes, but not in India. Remarkably enough, Braille literacy is growing in India. There is now even a Braille lifestyle magazine.
Try selling ad space for a magazine in Braille. Upasana Makati had a go at it recently when she was putting together a new lifestyle periodical she was launching with assistance from the National Association For The Blind (NAB). It wasn't easy.
"Advertisers realised there'd be no pictures, no colour, no print, just white sheets embossed with Braille cells, " she says. The only company that did put its money down was Raymond, the men's clothing brand. The ad went as an advertorial, offering summer style tips and tricks. Makati's magazine, Whiteline, was launched two weeks ago with little fanfare. Five hundred copies of the monthly were quietly printed at NAB's Braille Press and dispatched to libraries and institutions for the visually impaired across the country.
There are currently around 15 Braille periodicals published in India, including Mangaiyar Malar (Tamil) and Deepshikha (Hindi) for women, current affairs and general interest magazines like Braille Saptahik (Marathi), Puthia Chalaimurai (Tamil), Vartaman (Hindi) and The Touch (English), and Nandan and Chandamama for children. It is estimated that 56 lakh (33 per cent) - of a conservative count of 17 million blind persons in India - are Braille literate. On the other hand, there are around 73, 000 magazines published in the country for a literate population of 888 million.
It's those numbers that got Makati thinking. "I realised I had more than 50 magazines to choose from, but I couldn't recall a single lifestyle magazine available on the stands for the visually impaired. So I did a bit of research and interviewed people who were blind, and they acknowledged they had few reading options in Braille, " Makati says. (Less than one per cent of all published material is available in Braille worldwide. ) For instance, Nikita Raut, a senior HR manager with the Bank of Baroda, confessed she sometimes grew weary of JAWS (the screen reading software) reading to her all the time;she occasionally wanted to read a magazine herself, while, say, commuting or waiting at the dentist's.
The growing accessibility and convenience of assistive technology like computers, tablets, scanners, digital book readers and screen reading software like Orca, Apple VoiceOver and JAWS (which can now read in Hindi and Marathi) have made audio, not Braille, the main source of information for the visually impaired. But advocacy and support groups are concerned that assistive technology might eventually edge Braille out, at least for the blind if not the deaf-blind, who depend almost entirely on tactile access to information.
In America, the National Federation Of The Blind worries about people's growing dependency on assistive technology and the consequent decline in Braille literacy. The agency released a report in 2009 called "The Braille Literacy Crisis in America", in which they claimed that only 10 per cent of visually impaired children were learning Braille and called for advancing the use of Braille in current and emerging technologies, for Braille was the bedrock of literacy.
Raut, who has an MBA as well as an MA in Indian classical music, confesses that her links with Braille grew tenuous after graduation, when she came to increasingly rely on assistive technology. "But it's irritating to have to listen to JAWS all the time, " she admits. "Reading offers a more intimate experience of a subject. " But her access to material was limited. What's on offer is usually sequestered in institutional libraries - one can never expect to find Braille books at a general bookstore, while public libraries seldom devote a section to the format. Does this imply people will lose touch with Braille once they've quit the classroom? Is audio technology indeed pushing out Braille?
Not in India. Braille is doing better than ever before in India. Whiteline is one of the several recent initiatives launched to develop the Braille inventory in the country, while new production units and libraries are also helping to broaden the bookshelf. The National Institution For The Visually Handicapped (NIVH), which possesses a large collection of Braille literature (91, 000 volumes;13, 000 titles), has set up an online Braille library which allows individuals and institutions access to nearly 2, 000 books in several Braille regional languages. The Himachal Pradesh government launched two Braille libraries in Shimla and Mandi in 2010. Chennai's two-and-half-year-old public library, Anna Centenary, has a section for Braille, with around 383 titles and a membership of 969 visually impaired people.
"What's also happening is the decentralisation of Braille production, with blind institutions setting up their own embossing units, " says K Raman Shankar, director of NAB's Braille Press and educational programmes. "This has enhanced Braille production in a big way. There were earlier no more than five or six Braille units in the country, and there are today about 20. What has also happened is that the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan - which stipulates that all children, including those who are blind, have access to education - has brought more blind children into schools, and increased the demand for Braille textbooks, impressing upon state governments the need for more production facilities, " he says.
But academic texts, while they serve a purpose, make a poor case for bibliophilia itself. Aware that there was very little reading material available to children outside the curriculum, the non-profit, Third Eye Charitable Trust in Chennai, convinced several Indian publishers like Penguin, Tulika, Paragon and Scholastic to waive copyright licensing fees and allow them to convert about 500 children's titles into Braille.
As many as 7, 500 books have been produced to date. "We've covered a range of children's books including encyclopaedias, folk tales, mystery novels, fantasies, and so on, " says Vishnupriya Duvvru, one of the founders of the organisation. They didn't stop at making the books available: Third Eye started story-telling sessions this February, where volunteers (from Cognizant) would read age-appropriate literature in schools. This would arouse their interest in books and hopefully lead them to the library.
These initiatives are not without steep bills, but welfare groups have begun to convince donors to divert funds towards education and technology, not just food and clothing.
"It's expensive to convert print to Braille. A printed book which costs Rs 150 would cost Rs 700 to produce in Braille, " says Duvvru, whose project was funded by donors. Raman Shankar of NAB admits that the high costs of Braille production and the unwieldiness of a book in that format (a single volume of a printed book runs into multiple volumes in Braille) can slow down production and private circulation. This is where manufacturers of assistive technology come in with their innovations that further Braille literacy, like refreshable electronic Braille displays. These gadgets can convert text or Braille on any screen into raised characters, enabling someone to read it off, say, a computer or a phone.
NIVH has purchased a few of these devices, called Focus 40, and the Anna Centenary Library owns a system called the Braille Mitra, a storage unit and refreshable Braille display that can store around 4, 000 Braille format books. This device is made in India by Ace Infotech. "We've also developed a multilingual software called Shree-Lipi that can convert 10 regional language texts into Bharati Braille (a unified Braille script for Indian languages), " says Pradeep Satpute, the company's retail manager. A freeware called the Bharati Braille Converter, uploaded last week on Bharati-braille. pareidolic. in, can similarly convert Devanagiri scripts into Bharati Braille.
But most assistive technology, including what's made in India (save freeware), is expensive. The Braille Mitra costs about Rs 1. 10 lakh, a 14-cell Focus 40 sells at Rs 76, 000. Only institutions can afford them. Ram Agarwal, MD of Karishma Enterprises, the Mumbai-based dealer of such assistive technology brands like Freedom Scientific and Index Braille, says while there is a potential market for Braille technology and books in India, its literacy is more likely to spread if the government sets up district learning resource centres that take both the technology and the books to the people.
It's what a collaboration, inked in February this year between NAB and Perkins International, aims to do. Perkins, which concerns itself with education, services and products for the blind, deaf-blind or visually impaired, would, through the MOU, be better positioned to raise funds within India itself to support their outreach programmes here. Perkins says this would also allow them to further reduce the cost of their patented Braillers (typewriters ), whose basic model costs Rs 23, 250, subsidies applied. "This will enable us to provide, eventually, a Braille machine to every child who's blind, and help every child who's blind and deaf-blind get into school, " says Steven Rothstein, president, Perkins.
It may be slow going and the odds may appear overwhelming, but those out to promote Braille in India are determined to not lose sight of the dotted line.
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