Swati*, a 15-year-old visually challenged girl, runs her fingers over the shuffled dots of a Braille book, attempting to understand a sequence of dots. Every time she touches it, she tries to relate it with pictures or events she has heard about. "I was never taught Braille. I have been tutored only through audio lessons," said Swati, who touched a Braille book for the first time.
Swati is just one of the many visually impaired people in the state, who despite being tech savvy, have little or no training in Braille and sign language. Experts say inclusive education at school level and lack of Braille books for courses in higher education, are the major reasons that are causing braille and sign language to disappear.
While audio books and text to audio conversion software are easily available today, software like Nvidia and JAWS, that read the texts aloud, enable visually challenged people to type.
Most school students are not aware about Braille, said a special educator with government schools, adding that even though the government provides braille books, normal teachers are not adequately trained to teach them.
Under the inclusive education system, differently abled children are taught along with normal children. Once a month, a special educator breaks down these lessons for special children through different teaching aides. No government school or government aided school has a full-time special educator ever since inclusive education was mandated in schools a decade ago. The appointed teachers are supposed to cover many schools and teach a mix of special students from various classes. Special teachers rue that they barely get a day to cover a month’s syllabus for special children. "The school education department has also entrusted us with identifying and enrolling special children in the block and tracking the progress of enrolled students. When we cannot even spend enough time to teach students, how will we identify special talents in special children?" said the special educator.
Normal teachers are given training in Braille and sign language only for five days a year, which is not enough, she said.
"The imposition of inclusive education without the appointment of sufficient teachers has pushed Braille and sign language out of existence," the teacher said.
Admitting that most visually impaired people do not know how to read or write, K Senniyyapan, a retired Tamil teacher, also a visually impaired person, said lack of reading and writing skills renders one almost illiterate. "This increases their dependency on others. Besides, there are not many private institutions that teach Braille or sign language," he added.
The number of people who know how to read Braille books had reduced by more than 50%, said R Jaganthan, a trainer for visually impaired students. "Those who are interested to read are above 45 years."
Citing the rising cost and non-availability of braille books in many subjects as the reasons for braille’s falling readership, Jaganthan said it takes around `500 to emboss a page into braille.
Recollecting the 1980s when braille was popular and a lot of braille magazines and novels were being published, K Sadasivam of National Federation of Blind said recordings were introduced to reduce the burden on visually challenged persons. "Who knew it would take over Braille?" he said. He says children should be taught Braille at a younger age and it should be made a mandatory medium for visually challenged children during examination at least till Class VIII. "No awareness was created about these languages," he said, citing instances when special schools were closed due to low strength.
"But, people who enjoy the pleasure of reading books will always keep Braille alive and we have a lot of them in the state," said N Ramani of Indian Association for Blind, who publishes braille magazines like Vizhi Saval and Braille Manjari and has over 300 subscribers.
"Even though Braille books are a bit costly, people still buy them," he added.