“I read with my finger tips and that is the only way I feel literate,” says K. Selvi, a government employee with visual impairment. Technological advances, in the form of audio tapes and talking books, may have led to a decline in the popularity of Braille, but experts feel it will not lose its relevance because it still remains the key in ensuring literacy among the blind.
Braille faces a slew of challenges, say activists — the high cost of production machines, their maintenance and the thick paper which have to be imported, the economic condition of the user, are among the chief ones.
There are three major publishing houses that print books in Braille in the State — in Madurai, Coimbatore and Chennai. The National Institute for the Visually Handicapped in Poonamallee, near Chennai, provides free books for students up to Standard VI in government–aided schools for the blind.
The reason for the decline of Braille books was because the regional press, a Central government initiative, was almost dysfunctional for the last 10 years, say experts. “We remain highly under-utilised in the State,” says I. Arivandham, Regional Director, NIVH. Modernisation of machinery is essential for better and faster printing, he says.
N. Venkataraman, of RCMCT-Worth Trust Rehabilitation Centre, says that more than scanning the printed books and embossing the print, the time taken to convert the book into a single word document by extracting the images is the difficult part. Images are most often left out in Braille translations because embossing of figures is quite expensive, and not popular, he adds.
There are also problems in translating Tamil books into Braille. “There's a Braille convertor for English, but there isn't not one for regional languages,” says C.R. Sudhakar, a teacher in a school for the blind.
“It takes somebody proficient in Tamil, English and Braille typing to do the job. It is not easy to find such professionals,” he adds.
N. Krishnaswamy, Chairman of Vidya Vrikshah, an NGO training persons with disability, calls for subsidising Braille books. Braille, he adds, is a significant introductory mechanism of literacy in the formative years.
“With practice, Braille almost becomes a way of life for those who are born blind, but might not be necessary for those who acquire blindness,” says Mr.Venkataraman.
Mr. Sudhakar says that lack of Braille versions of guides and reference books is also a challenge.
“A collection of 10 years' question papers for grade 10 might be priced between Rs.60 and Rs. 80 but the same in Braille would cost Rs. 1,300,” says P. Manjula, mother of a child with visual disability.
Also, while books under the Samacheer Kalvi scheme might come out in May, it may take another two months for Braille text books to come out, Mr.Sudhakar says.
But advanced versions of Braille offer hope. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing provides “Shruti Drishti,” a browsing and listening software that not only reads out links and content in Indian-accented English, but also prints out text in Braille. “It takes barely 10 minutes to get acquainted with the system, and it also helps you take a hard copy of what you want to read in Braille,” says Hemant Darbari, director of CDAC.
With all languages having Unicode symbols, Mr. Arivanandam says translation of regional books into Braille would soon become easier.
“It is only through Braille that the blind get a degree of independence, so what we need is more awareness about its importance,” he says.