India’s print media is among the largest in the world. More than 25 per cent of the world’s blind population is in India.
Yet, India’s 12 million visually impaired people do not have a daily newspaper dedicated to them.
In a small way, Swagat Thorat has been trying to change that. Thorat started working with the blind in 1991 when he conceptualised and wrote a documentary about educational methods for the visually impaired.
In 1997, he made Swantantryachi Yashogatha, a play that featured 88 visually impaired artists, a world record.
“While doing the show, I travelled with these kids and observed that their discussions revolved around things that they had read,” said Thorat. “Back in 1998, there were very few Braille books available. Now, the number has gone up. But I realised that these kids wanted to read more. There was a need.”
That Diwali, Thorat came out with the inaugural issue of Sparshagandh, a Braille newspaper. Diwali special issues, which are an integral part of Marathi literary culture, had never seen an issue in Braille.
“Our society hadn’t accepted that beyond the basics of food, clothing and shelter there’s a need for education and exposure for the blind. It still hasn’t but the outlook is changing,” said Thorat, who edited a special edition of iconic Marathi literary and cultural figure P L Deshpande’s writings with the help of the legend’s wife, Sunita.
“People enjoyed the Diwali issue so much that they started writing in saying that an annual issue wasn’t enough,” he said.
Thorat then decided to focus on building the infrastructure to start a periodical for the visually impaired. This included raising funds, and saving up to acquire Braille printing machines. In 2007, Thorat got together a setup and the first issue of the newly-named Sparshdnyan was published on February 15, 2008.
“At that point, it was the first registered newspaper in Braille in India,” he said. “We started with 100 copies and in four years we have brought it up to 400 copies.”
Four hundred seems like a small number in a country of 12 million visually impaired people.
“We have over 3000 requests for copies, but I don’t have the means or resources to print more!” said Thorat. “I need bigger machines and that means more funds. Sparshdnyan has come all this way without any grants from the government or donations. We don’t have any advertisers on board. It is tough to expand.”
But Sparshdnyan has managed to stay afloat so far.
“When people know you’re doing something good, they help,” he said. “And so I approached all my acquaintances and well-wishers with a special scheme. If they paid an annual fee of Rs 960, a copy of the fortnightly magazine would be presented to a blind person.”
While the scheme helps him cover the cost of the paper, which is considerably high, the administrative cost comes from his own pocket.
“It feels wrong if I raise funds for a cause that I don’t end up spending on,” he said, smiling.
His next challenge is to find advertisers.
“It is tough to convince advertisers that blind individuals are consumers too, their families are consumers too. We hope to slowly drive home this point,” he said. “When we came out with Sparshdnyan people didn’t understand that the visually challenged need higher education and intellectual stimulation. But their outlook is slowly changing.”
He is also in the process of collecting statistics about education among the blind in India.
“It has definitely gone up,” he said. “Pune University’s Sanskrit and Pali department is headed by Mahesh Deokar, who didn’t let his handicap stop him from getting a post-doctorate in the subject of his choice. We have also employed Anuja who is the first blind post-graduate journalism student at the Mumbai University. She is learning to use computers and getting hands-on experience. Education is a way for them to get over their handicap and pursue their interests and passion.”
The magazine leaves no stone unturned in inspiring their readers to scale new heights. Celebrated Marathi journalists and writers like Rajeev Khandekar, Raju Parulekar and Vijaya Wad regularly contribute to the paper and most of the content in the paper revolves around social issues, international affairs, inspiring biographies and education and career options.
“Our ideology is clear.” said Thorat. “We want to acquaint our readers to current issues around them. We don’t want to discuss or debate only issues that affect the visually handicapped. Sparshdnyan carries content that you and I like to read in our morning paper.”
While he finds information about cricket is otherwise available through other media, he thinks crime reports have no direct impact on the reader’s life.
“The paper we use is so expensive that I want to be judicious of what gets printed on it,” he said. “And quality has been our prime concern. We brought out a ‘columns’ special that featured articles from writers like Agarkar, Mahdav Gadkari, Vijay Kuvalekar, Kumar Ketkar and more. No ‘normal’ publication has come close to the quality of that issue, which is why we bagged five awards for that issue at a national level.
He is also surprised that none of the major media houses have started a daily for the blind.
“We have so many blind people saying that they feel it is unfair that there is no newspaper for them,” said Thorat, who is trying to get public libraries at the district level to start Braille sections.
Braille can be only printed on a specially processed 140 GSM paper which costs Rs1.50 per page and hence Braille books can be quite expensive. He feels that this move would encourage blind students to read even after their education is over.
“What typically happens is that due to lack of access to Braille books beyond their textbooks, blind students lose touch with reading once they graduate,” he said. “True, they can have a few books read to them but that is not reading, its listening. Reading and listening are two different functions. When you read, it has a deeper impact on your personality. It enhances your language which listening can’t. Which is why till date there has been no alternative to Braille the world over.”
Considering that the Internet has changed the way information is transmitted, what about technology’s role in propagating Braille? “There is a Braille machine, in which you enter text with the help of a pen drive. It reads the text and dots appear on it to enable a visually impaired person to read it. Right now, these machines are very expensive, but if we spread awareness and get these machines to be adopted in the larger picture, the cost can go down and the government can also subsidise the price of these machines. This will bring the cost of printing down substantially,” says Thorat who is working on creating awareness about these machines with various institutions and organisations.
“I dream of a day when blind individuals will get their own daily,” he said. “I hope some media house starts it, but if they don’t I will start the daily on my own in a few years.”
What drives him? The fact that his work enriches the life of his readers, he says.
“A girl who used to act in our group wrote to me recently,” he said. “She works with a government agency and used to go to work and feel left out of conversations. After she started reading Sparshdnyan, she wrote, she could not only be a part of but also drive conversations. I dream of making reading accessible to the blind.”
Sparshgyaan is published on the 1st and the 15th of every month. For more details, write to firstname.lastname@example.org