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World Sight Day 2021: Touch to See, Listen to Know


Touch to See, Listen to Know



On World Book Day, we salute the tireless pursuit of some of the changemakers whose pathbreaking initiatives — software, apps, digital audio libraries, colourful, tactile books, museum guides, a magazine and also a newspaper — are helping the visually challenged access knowledge and transform their reading experience. 

You survive only if you read,” says Prathmesh Bendre, an alumnus of Xavier’s College, a stage poetry performer, songwriter, musician and law aspirant. “I am a poet and love writing. But to be a good writer one has to be a reader first,” he says. Bendre’s words sum up his love of books and fondness for reading, but in some measure, they also highlight his agony and anguish at not being able to read it all. Not because he doesn’t have access to good books, but because he can’t read like you and me. He is visually challenged and to feed his brain with knowledge, he is dependent on a talking book or an audio clip or an app or software or at best a tactile book to be able to celebrate books and enjoy reading, much like his sighted counterpart. Here are some of the initiatives that have made a difference to his reading experience. 

1. CLABIL (Central Library of Audio Books in Indian Languages), a project started by Esha – People for the Blind. 
USP: CLABIL is both web and app based. Users can access the library with the help of an app named Suno, and also on the browsers of their smartphones, tablets or desktops.The audio library has 6,293 books in 20 Indian languages in MP3 format. The entire CLABIL content (www.clabil.org) is available online, and anyone can download it. The audio library can be accessed at www.braillecards.org/audio.php
Nidhi Arora, an alumna of IIM, Kolkata, started Esha in January 2005, and then came up with CLABIL in 2010. “I don’t know why I started Esha. I also don’t know why empowering blindness meant so much. I guess the answer would have to be “because it was there – the need to empower. The day that need vanishes, I will not do Esha,” she says. Esha and Arora live by three words — Dignity, Empowerment and Enablement — and she aims to make knowledge available to every citizen of India, especially to those who don’t speak English, are not literate or English literate, etc. Esha also designs Braille visiting card, greeting card, organises Blind Walks and conducts Theater Workshops and helps make commercial, corporate and educational spaces friendly and non-intimidating for the blind. As for the future, Arora says, “The program is a lot more demand driven. There are plans to keep adding to the library and more importantly, trying to add Indian dialects and languages not represented so far.”  

 2. Digital Access Information System (DAISY) Centre: Digital Book Library, a project started by Samarthanam Trust for Disabled.
USP: To provide practical support to school and college students by making course material and books available to them. Using software like JAWS and DAISY, printed books are converted to the audio format, enabling students to listen to them using MP3 players on their devices like mobile phones and laptops. It has more than 1000 books in its audio library. Eight centers are operational.
Mahantesh G. Kivadasannavar started Samarthanam Trust for Disabled in Bengaluru in 1997 and the Digital Book Library in 2008. “It was born out of compassion and empathy, two ideals that have been our greatest strengths since its inception,” he says. The founders, being visually impaired and having witnessed various challenges, conceptualized Samarthanam to cater to people with disabilities, including the visually impaired and underprivileged so that such people receive all possible support to pursue education and sports. The Digital Book Library aims to make education accessible for the print-disabled including visually impaired, dyslexic children and those with verbal processing difficulties. The persons with disabilities produce their textbooks to be converted into a digital form, and volunteers help in converting these books. The final audio is transferred onto a CD, which the students can use as per their convenience. The initiative, digital library, was the first of its kind to be set up and operational in India. Thanks to their efforts, students have gone on to join IIM, and it has also produced the first visually impaired chartered accountant, Rajani Gopal. It hopes to touch a more than lakh lives by 2020. 

3. The Audio Book Project, a We4You initiative in assisting the visually challenged in pursuing their dreams
USP: It is making education accessible to the visually challenged students in Odisha by converting their textbooks into audio format. 
Founders Abhaya Mohanta, Bhabani Sankar Parida, Rajaram Biswal and Devi Prasad Panda came together to start We4You in 2010 that initiated the Audio Book Project to convert school textbooks into the audio format in their home state, Odisha.They want to ensure that every visually challenged child in India gets the right to education because education is empowerment. “Our focus is on preparing audio books to solve the problems caused by unavailability of Braille books for the visually impaired, especially college students,” says Abhaya Mohanta. The volunteer-based service survives on meagre means and depends on people to donate their voice that in turn helps in converting textbooks into audio format. The facility caters to the Odia, English and Hindi speaking students as of now.
4. Hear2Read, a text to speech software that enables reading without seeing. 
USP: It allows visually challenged people to read digital media (email, documents, websites, e-books, etc.). The facility is available in Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. It runs on low-cost smartphones and tablets. The App can be downloaded from Google Play Store. 
Suresh Bazaj, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur, and University of Michigan, and a computer software and networking professional based in the Silicon Valley, US, developed Hear2Read (www.hear2read.org) in 2013. Whenever Bazaj met people with visual impairments, who achieved great success, he thought of the students at the Poddar School for Blind Boys in his hometown Varanasi, where some students ended up as manual labours despite having a spectrum of other talents. “These people didn’t lose their ability to think just because they didn’t have their eyesight. The big problem was the lack of education.” That made him develop this software. The response has been overwhelming so far. “Hear2Read TTS App works with Android Talkback Accessibility service for vision-impaired users. All users (sighted as well as vision-impaired) can use “@Voice Aloud Reader” (Free)  to read on screen text content from other Android apps, e.g. web pages, news articles email, TXT, PDF, DOC, DOCX, RTF, and eBooks. eBook readers allow navigation within a book by chapter, page number, or bookmark, and word searches,” he says. 

5. Dreaming Fingers, a tactile book imprint from Karadi Tales
USP: The picture books for visually challenged have Braille text and textures for different elements on the page. 

Shobha Viswanath, the co-founder and Publishing Director of Karadi Tales Company, had been involved with projects for the visually challenged for years but the idea for Dreaming Fingers struck her at a dinner meeting with Jean-Christophe, the publishing director of Lemniscaat, a Dutch children’s publishing house. “We decided to collaborate on tactile books for the visually challenged,” she says. The first entirely tactile book released under the imprint was Eric Carle’s bestseller ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. Her tactile books have sold tens of thousands of copies, but most of these sales have been abroad. “Producing tactile books is an expensive and time-consuming affair and without government support, it is difficult for such books to have a market in India,” says Viswanath. The best takeaway is to see the success of these tactile books. It’s not just popular among the visually challenged children but also adults and the differently abled. 

6. White Print, a lifestyle magazine

USP: Launched in May 2013, this 64-page monthly magazine is printed at the National Association for the Blind, Mumbai, and circulated across India. The magazine has articles on sports, politics, culture, fashion, technology, inspiring stories of the common man, short stories and even reader contributions.
A stray thought of what did the visually impaired people read in their leisure time led public relations professional Upasana Makati to start White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille. “I quite enjoyed what I did but always wanted to do more.” One night, Makati started counting the number of magazines that she, a sighted person, could read. But when she thought of those who couldn’t see, she found none. “After conducting thorough online and offline research, and finding absolutely nothing in the space, I quit my job to give a concrete shape to this idea,” she says. After eight months and three title rejection processes from the Registrar of Newspapers for India, White Print was formed in May 2013. The magazine is priced at Rs 30 and publishes 350 copies in a month; the annual subscription is Rs 300. “It has been receiving subscription orders from all over the country, even from places that I haven’t heard of and that’s quite heartening,” she says. The latest addition is a Tactabet — a Braille-Tactile-Text version of ABC books for children in both English and Hindi.

7. Open Braille Guidebook for the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur
USP: The first Braille book for a museum in India has tactile illustrations of the paintings, objects d’art and architectural elements at the museum for the visually challenged visitors.
Siddhant Shah is a heritage architect and Access Management Consultant who specializes in bridging the gap between Cultural Heritage and Disability. A Stavros Niarchos Scholar, Shah finished his MA in Heritage Management from the University of Kent (Athens Campus, Greece). During his stay abroad, he was exposed to a lot of museums, most of which were disable friendly. “I decided to return to India and try to make our museums disable friendly and easily accessible.”He started off by consulting schools, museums, art galleries and monuments to help them become disable friendly. “We started by making the space accessible through ramps, railings and signage.” In Mumbai, he saw a blind couple sitting aloof on a bench at a monument site. “There was no engagement for them. Even my mother is partially sighted, so it instigated me to take this social endeavour professionally to make knowledge of art, culture and heritage more accessible to those with visual impairment.”Since then, he has been relentlessly pursuing his goal. For the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust in Jaipur, he made the country’s first Museum Braille Book with Tactile Plates. As a Resource Consultant on Disability Access to the Ministry of Culture’s National Museum, New Delhi, he helped set up the new tactile gallery for PwD. He had also designed a unique interpretative project called ‘Abhas: A tactile experience’ for the Delhi Art Gallery at the India Art Fair ’15, where he converted the artworks of Raza, Jamini Roy and others into tactile reproductions and aids along with a Braille book on Visual Art. His endeavour helped the visually impaired explore the world of visual arts. Shah has also designed and co-authored India’s first Open Braille guidebook with a large script font and tactile plates for the Jaipur City Palace. He has just launched a Touch & Feel Book on India Folk Art, a first of its kind in the country and world too, as a part of the Pustaka Bookaroo (Children’s Literature Festival) in Malaysia. “It was something which we were thinking of doing for the past one year, but were waiting for funds.” 

8. Booklet App that has textual and audio summary of best sellers in Amrut Deshmukh’s voice
USP: The App is freely available on Play store and Apple Store and has been made compatible with the Talk Back facility for Android and iOS phones which are very helpful for the visually challenged. The book summary in audio format is storytelling with emotions, voice modulations, and music.
Mumbai-based Chartered Accountant Amrut Deshmukh was struggling with start-up ideas but it was a book summary that he happened to casually narrate to his friend at a theatre that set the ball rolling for him. “My friend was so impressed that he asked me to share a summary of the books that I read next.” An avid reader this proposition seemed more like a business idea, and it clicked. He decided to execute the idea within a week and WhatsApp came in handy. He started sharing a book summary every week with 15 of his close friends and asked them to share with their friends. Within two weeks, he got 1000 requests on WhatsApp. “I was thrilled and named it Mission Make India Read.” But people were not reading his summaries. To grab their attention, he started recording the book summaries in his voice. “I shared the summaries on WhatsApp in both text and audio form. And that was an instant hit!” On the World Book Day last year, he launched Booklet App. This year, he has come out with the App in Hindi and other regional languages are also in the offing. Calling his venture a social enterprise, Deshmukh has Recently started “Booklet Hindi” and will soon come up with a Grandma’s Booklet for kids. The best appreciation came from a visually challenged girl who called to thank him for enabling her to read through his eyes. He has also tied up with an organisation, All India Blind Graduates Forum, to help them access the app and read booklets with eyes closed.

9. Sparshdnyan meaning ‘knowledge by touch’, a Marathi newspaper in Braille by Swagat Thorat 
USP: The first of its kind in India, the paper was launched in 1998. The 50-page newspaper is published on the first and fifteenth of every month and has a dedicated reader base.    
A former journalist, Swagat Thorat firmly believes that reading is empowering, not just for the sighted but also the visually challenged. But when he decided to bring out a newspaper in Braille, he knew that it wouldn’t be easy. “I was sighted. I didn’t know Braille. To understand what it is to be blind, I started learning Braille and slowly entered their world,” he says. An acclaimed filmmaker, wildlife photographer, playwright, and painter, he had been acquainted with the life and times of a visually challenged during his work. Over the years, he has managed to do it all alone — from raising funds to building the infrastructure, from procuring Braille printing machines, to collecting articles and producing it till date.