On World Braille Day, we look at tools of education for the visually-impaired, such as accessible e-books and the Digital Accessible Information System
“If there aren’t enough books for all, let book shops perish,” says K Raghuraman, co-ordinator, Karna Vidya Foundation and professor at the Department of English, Government Arts College for Men. His sentiments may seem rather extreme, but in reality, they are expressions of the adversity of a visually-impaired reader. Less than half percent of books in any library around Chennai are written in Braille, considering four out of every thousand people in Tamil Nadu are visually-impaired.
The introduction of accessible e-books has been a boon for such readers, despite low levels of awareness. On World Braille Day, we tackle an important question — where should Braille proceed?
“Braille is a symbol. It stands for knowledge, education, and literacy. It is a system that initiates a thirst for knowledge. We should not harp on this age-old system, but use it as a symbol for independent learning,” says Raghuraman, who, at KVF, encourages the online accessible format for learning. “You cannot expect a child or the uninitiated to use the e-book format. They need Braille as an introductory tool. Similarly, you cannot expect a high school student to resort to Braille when his peers are scaling heights in robotics,” he continues.
While the ePUB formats (short for electronic publication) are the way to go, Braille texts remain indispensable for beginners as primal learning tools. One of the main publishers of Braille books in the city is the National Institute for Visually Handicapped (NIVH). It published about 31,806 Braille volumes of 200 titles between April and November 2018, with prints ranging from magazines to children’s stories to State course books.
These books travel to libraries across the State. Anna Centenary houses about 3,000 books printed in Braille, of which 620 have been purchased in 2018. It also has 2,600 e-books in the accessible format. The Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled maintains a collection of 500 books in Braille, while the Adyar Library has 200-300 old theosophical books.
Yet, all these libraries share a common deficit. Apart from Anna Centenary, the libraries have scarcely purchased Braille books over the last few years and the addendum of new titles is negligible. While a general lack of awareness might be an issue, other inherent factors come to play.
“Reading and writing Braille is time consuming and computers are faster,” Raghuraman points out. Even audio books have their own limitations. He believes DAISY — Digital Accessible Information System is the most advanced option available. It makes use of the mouse and keyboard along with a voice synthesiser to guide the user through the text.
“With DAISY, we have books right at our desks,” he says.
In fact, India is a signatory under the Marrakesh International Treaty, initiated by World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), which strives to make books all across the globe easily available in accessible formats for the print disabled.
The need for e-books is clear. Organisations such as the Madras Literary Society(MLS) have slates and palettes with Braille alphabets which they circulate regularly amongst children. Thirupurasundari Sevvel of the MLS says, “This is a step towards inclusiveness.”
Organisations like Vidya Sagar, Poonamallee School for the Blind and others are the small forces of change. But the collective effort has to be from the State Government, and largely from the publishers and organisers. “The organisers themselves should put up stalls at book fairs and promote publishers who bring out books in an accessible format. As of now, only we [the visually-impaired] are creating awareness,” says Raghuraman.
The ongoing Chennai Book Fair sadly has no stalls for Braille books. Will the situation change in the coming years?