Blind about Braille

It's time something was done about the lack of Braille texts in India

By T V Jayan
Published: Monday 15 March 2004

-- (Credit: Ruhani Kaur / CSE)While India is 'shining', its 12 million blind continue to live in a state of unabated darkness. Like their "sighted" counterparts, the blind too are entitled to a sound education. However, thanks to an insensitive government and a callous bureaucracy, facilities for the same are inadequate.

A serious concern is the lack of sufficient reading material in Braille (a language system for the blind). Hardest hit by such government indifference are blind children. Of the estimated two million blind children in the country only five per cent get to attend schools. This handful too, cannot benefit much due to unavailability of texts. Braille texts are either not printed, and if so, only after the academic session is over!
Poor infrastructure There is a lack of sufficient Braille printing units in the country. On January 15, 2003, acting on a petition filed by the All India Confederation of the Blind (aicb), New Delhi, the Supreme Court directed the Dehra Dun-based National Institute of Visually Handicapped (nivh) to make Braille versions of all text books (i-xii standard) available by March 31, 2004. The institute has to prepare sufficient copies of 199 textbooks in English and Hindi.

The situation is worse when it comes to other Indian languages. In Haryana and Punjab, government-run Braille presses are either nonfunctional or underutilised, according to J L Kaul, secretary general of aicb. In the northeast there is not a single Braille press. However, some voluntary organisations have set up printing facilities in many states, informs Vinod Sena, a retired professor of English, University of Delhi.

A possible solution, according to Sena who is blind himself, is to prepare soft copies of Braille books published by reputed organisations. One hopes that such electronic manuscripts will simplify Braille printing processes. Sena has made several representations to the University Grants Commission and the school education boards to make this mandatory, but to no avail.

Another stumbling block is the Copyright Act. Unlike many countries, the Indian government has never made an effort to exempt Braille versions of texts from the ambit of law. "This means that each time I publish a book in Braille, I am breaking the law," says Kaul. But goes on to add -- "I am prepared to go to jail, if the government is so insensitive to such a noble cause".

Such policy glitches have far-reaching consequences. According to Dipendra Manocha, head of the computer unit, New Delhi-based National Association of the Blind (nab), several international organisations that have started websites for books prepared in 'blind-friendly' software formats are wary of enrolling members from India. "They are scared that foreign publishing houses might sue them as the law of the land does not permit it. A good example is It has over 10,000 fiction and non-fiction books published by leading publishing houses in the world. "They flatly refused access," he says.
Soft options: IT and Braille According to Manocha, developments in information and communication technologies are making things easier. For instance, the Digital Accessible Information System (daisy) Consortium has developed a software that can covert text into any form -- Braille, talking audio and even larger prints. nab is currently working with daisy to make the software available to blind schools and institutions free of cost.

In the opinion of Ghulam Rabbani Butt, president of Asian Blind Union and professor of political science, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the situation in most developing countries is about the same. "Society tends to either overprotect the blind or over-neglect them. What it doesn't realise is that they don't need sympathy, but an environment where they can assert their rights." R A Sirisena, general secretary of the Sri Lankan Federation of the Visually Handicapped, seconds the view.

There is much talk about the 'feel-good factor'. But the blind in India have little to feel good about. For them, the light at the end of the tunnel, or words at finger-ends, remains a long way off.

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