Free Press Journal

They can’t see but they can ‘read’

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“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 have been holding my poetry event called Khwaabon Ki Dastan (the story of our dreams) for the last seven years. In these events, I recite my poems touching upon various aspects of life, from love and romance to social challenges like poverty. I am a poet and love writing. But to be a good writer one must 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 Bendre thinks have made a difference to the reading experience of the visually challenged people.

  1. CLABIL (Central Library of Audio Books in Indian Languages), a project started by Esha – People for the BlindNidhiAroraClabil (1)

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, have a slow internet connection, are not literate or English literate, etc.

Citing the most memorable incident so far, Arora says, she had once recorded a book called “Asaan Ganit”, a compilation of maths shortcuts, that she played at an outreach program in a blind school, and the impact that it had on the young minds. “I played the magic of multiplying by 11. The less than 5 minute audio clip was played once. Then, just to add to the fun, I asked the participants if they were ready to apply what they had just learnt. They sportingly agreed. I asked them some questions. Guess how long they took to multiply 2 digit numbers by 11 after listening to that clip just once? They took 3 seconds to do that multiplication in their heads! I was dumbfounded! I asked them some 5-6 questions that day, and their timing always came close to 3 seconds. That was an eye opener for me and I realised the importance of what we had started to create.”

Esha also designs Braille visiting card, greeting card, organises Blind Walks and conducts Theatre 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.”

  1. 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 (Jobs Access With Speech) and DAISY (Digital Access Information System), 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.

Mahantesh, being an ardent cricket enthusiast, player and admirer, constantly strived for the development of the game for the blind. Thanks to his efforts, the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI) was registered in the year 2010 with a mission to use competitive cricket for making the visually impaired succeed in the arena of sports.

In the second T20 World Cup for the Blind, the Indian team won the tournament by defeating arch rivals Pakistan. Shekhar Naik, former captain of Indian Blind Cricket team, was recently conferred Padmashri.

  1. 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. At present, the facility is available only in Hindi, English and Odia but plans to cover all Indian languages.

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 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. But the organisation is working on a plan to convert all textbooks from Class 6 onwards till post-graduation level, teachers’ training books and preparatory books for competitive exams into audio format. It plans to reach out to every blind student of India by the end of 2025.

  1. Hear2Read, a text to speech software that enables reading without seeing
    Hear2Read2

USP: It allows visually challenged people to read digital media (email, documents, websites, e-books, etc.) just as people with sight do without printing it. The facility is available in Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. It runs on low-cost smartphones and tablets. Allows writing using a keyboard by speaking what needs to be typed. It increases mobility by using digital maps, transportation schedules, etc.

Suresh Bazaj, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur, and University of Michigan, and a computer software and networking professional based in California, US, Alan Black, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute, computer scientist Alok Parlikar and a team of developers and volunteers developed Hear2Read (www.hear2read.org) in 2013. It is a text-to-speech smartphone and tablet App that’s free to download from Google Play Store.

As a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, Bazaj met people with visual impairments who achieved great success in the industry. They reminded him of the students at the Poddar School for Blind Boys in his hometown of 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 that they were not getting a proper education.” That made him develop this software. And the response to his endeavour to bridge the digital divide 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.

  1. Dreaming Fingers, a tactile book imprint from Karadi Tales

ShobhaVisvanathan2USP: The picture books for visually challenged have Braille text and textures for different elements on the page. Karadi Tales is also known for brilliantly produced audiobooks for children, and inspiring audio biographies for young adults.

Shobha Viswanath, the co-founder and Publishing Director of Karadi Tales Company, holds a Masters in Special Education with a speciality in visual impairment from the University of Michigan. She 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 got talking and 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’. “Initially, we even thought of having different textures for colours — cool ones for red, hot for blue — but that turned out to be tough with a variety of colours, so we stuck to making the textures different based on the object. For instance, an orange has a harder texture than an apple,” she says, fondly reminiscing her first picture book for the visually challenged. 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, adding, “In Netherlands, there are government subsidies for producing such books and also significant funds allotted to libraries to purchase tactile books, since they are expensive.”

Her best takeaway is to see the success of these tactile books. “The response has been nothing short of amazing. Still, we have miles to go. I want these books to be accessible to kids across India,” she says. It’s not just popular among the visually challenged children but also adults and the differently abled. “We have found that it’s proved to be useful in classrooms with children who have autism,” she says, beaming with satisfaction.

  1. White Print, a lifestyle magazine

UpasanaWhitePrintUSP: 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 Upasana Makati to start White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.

Armed with a Bachelor’s in Mass Media and a certificate in Corporate Communication from the University of Ottawa, Canada, she joined a Public Relations startup in Mumbai. “I quite enjoyed what I did but always wanted to do more,” says Makati. One night, in an introspective mode, 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 was convinced to quit my job and give a concrete shape to my thought,” she says.

After eight months and three title rejection processes from the Registrar of Newspapers for India, White Print was formed in May 2013. She collaborated with the National Association for the Blind (NAB) in Mumbai, who agreed to help her with the publishing process and offered their technical know-how, including Braille printing.

White Print has started a revolution of sorts. It opened avenues for Braille literature but also Braille advertising. As advertisers shied away from no-gloss, no-image print ads, the magazine brought to the fore untapped insights of the world’s largest visually impaired population. An advertiser had a musical ad that played each time the reader opened the centre spread.

Today, she counts her blessings and says, “Being an entrepreneur is the most exciting part of my life. No hefty paycheck could give me the satisfaction that running White Print gives. I find joy in working for a community that is hungry to read quality content on a monthly basis, delivered at their doorstep.” 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. “The alphabet books will enable integrated and fun learning for visually impaired and kids with low vision. They are being used in schools across the country and even in Australia, she says.

  1. Open Braille Guidebook for the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur

SiddhantTactile Braille Guide Book (3)USP: The first Braille book for a museum in India has tactile illustrations of the paintings, objets 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) and was the first Indian to receive a Greek scholarship. It was during those days that he was exposed to a lot of museums abroad, 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.”

An incident that touched his heart happened in Mumbai when 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. “We even distributed these books across the blind schools in Rajasthan, with an aim that they will read about the City Palace of Jaipur and will learn about our heritage and culture.”

As a Resource Consultant on Disability Access to the Ministry of Culture’s National Museum, New Delhi, he was instrumental in setting 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,” says Shah.

He is now scouting for supporters to fund his new project to empower the visually impaired. “we are planning to write simple Braille books to teach these people about their rights as many of them are unaware of them.”

  1. Booklet App that has textual and audio summary of best sellers in Amrut Deshmukh’s voice

BookletApp Amrut

USP: It is a part of Deshmukh’s mission to Make India Read. The App is freely available on Play store and Apple Store. It has been made compatible with the “Talk Back ” facility for Android and iOS phones which is very helpful for the visually challenged. The book summaries in audio format are not plain reading but more of ‘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. “I summarised the key takeaways of the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My friend found it interesting and 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 saw a huge opportunity and decided to execute the idea within a week. There were limitations too. “Being a non-IT guy, I had no knowledge of developing a website or an app. It was TT Rangarajan’s words from his book Unposted Letter — ‘It’s not important what you have. It’s important what you do with what you have’ that helped me rise to the occasion.” He decided to make the most of WhatsApp and 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.” A summary that brings out the best of the book in 20 minutes flat had caught the fancy of readers.

But even though his fan base grew on WhatsApp, he realised that people were not reading his summaries. “I conducted a survey and found out that only 10% were reading.” Down but still not out, 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! People stopped and started listening.”

But WhatsApp banned him thinking that he was spamming. The ban was lifted only after being convinced that it is to cultivate the habit of reading among the youth of India.

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.

  1. Sparshdnyan meaning ‘knowledge by touch’, a Marathi newspaper in Braille by Swagat Thorat 

Audio Book Project4

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 visiting schools for the visually challenged. 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 in the course of his work.

In 1993, he conceptualised and wrote a documentary ‘Kallokhatil Chandane’, based on the educational methods of the visually challenged, for Doordarshan’s Balchitra Vahini. “It was my first exposure to the world they lived in.”

Thorat realised that these people are visually impaired, but talented and artistically capable. Swagat started collaborating more often with them, and in 1997 it was a play that he produced and directed, Swantantryachi Yashogatha, with 88 blind artists, which has found a mention in both the Guinness Book of World Records and Limca Book of World Records that pulled him into the world of the visually challenged.

While doing shows for the play, he was amazed to know that they were avid readers but a serious shortage of books in the Braille language. “They sought my help, and I edited and gifted three Braille issues of ‘Sparshgandh’, a magazine that I started for them.”

He also edited a special edition of Pu La Deshpande’s writings with the help of his wife, Sunita Thakur, and directed Pu La Deshpande’s famous play, ‘Teen PaishachaTamasha’, with 44 visually challenged artists.

Bouyed by the response, he decided to start a newspaper in Braille. It was easier said than done and but 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.