Podcast: How the Visually Impaired Read in India

I never imagined that blind persons could be voracious readers till I met a visually impaired person who introduced me to DAISY. Now before you conjure up visions liked I did of DAISY being a beautiful young woman with a heart of gold, let me clarify that DAISY is not a human being. But wait, we are jumping the gun. My name is Krishna Warrier and I am chatting today with Ketan Kothari. Ketan is a first-class post graduate from Mumbai University who works for an organisation called Sightsavers, he is an avid reader, and happens to be blind.

Krishna: Ketan, what exactly is DAISY?

Ketan: DAISY is a digital system which is accessible to print disabled people so the acronym DAISY stands for Digitally Accessible System—rather, Digitally Accessible Information System and it enables us to read books in a variety of accessible formats including audio, Braille, electronic, etc.

Krishna: So when you say ‘print disabled persons’ what exactly do you mean?

Ketan: Print disabled are those people who are unable to read conventional print either due to their disability of their dyslexia or blindness or low vision. So these people who are unable to read print in so called normal way are known as print disabled people.

Krishna: So how would they read typically? Because the idea we have—sighted people have—is that blind people would usually read using Braille.

Ketan: Well, Braille of course is one of the ways of reading but it certainly is not the only one. We use audio, we use electronic formats such as the Word file, pdf file, html file using screen readers on our computers or on mobile phones. And we also use DAISY which itself is a reading system wherein material is tagged so that you can jump from chapter to chapter, headings to headings in order to enable us to navigate properly. Especially this is true for study material.

Krishna: It’s interesting…what you are saying if I get you right is that just as sighted people use book marks, a blind reader would also use book marks. DAISY would enable that. Is that right?

Ketan: Yeah, but book marks can also be used in a Word file but DAISY is something more than that. Here, you don’t have to do a bookmark—it’s already made for you. So you can jump from one to the other without you interacting in any other way with the file.

Krishna: Right. Now you read a lot of books, Ketan. I have known you for a while and we have discussed a lot of books in the past. Do you get access to the same kind of books that sighted people do, that people like me do?

Ketan: I would say yes and no. Yes in the sense that if these are English books then I have a variety of modes whereby I can get access to these books. There are these audio books available abroad that can be purchased online. Then of course the Kindle books are there, e-books are there. Those can be purchased. Then we have library which is—there are a couple of online libraries. One is known as Bookshare and the other is one that is set up by the Government of India which is known as Sugamya Pustakalaya. But the problem comes when it is about Indian languages and there, there is a lot of drought. Not many Indian books are available in accessible electronic formats and even when they are available we are not able to read them well because the text-to-speech engine which enables us to read these books is not yet well developed for Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi. Hindi is slightly better but the other languages are still just progressing a bit.

Krishna: Right. So you were speaking about Braille and audio—so the impression I get is that while sighted people would use only their eyes to read, someone who cannot see in the conventional way would use their fingers or their ears to read. Is that right?

Ketan: Absolutely.

Krishna: So please take us briefly into the pre-Braille era if you could. How did things happen during those times?

Ketan: Well, when Braille was not invented–that was somewhere in the 19th century in France–prior to that reading was not actually possible for people who are print disabled, specially blind and low vision. They just depended on rote memory and that did not give them much knowledge and access to a lot of information. So it was very, very restricted. Once Braille came, the picture improved slightly but I must admit it has not improved in a big way. Because as you will appreciate, Krishna, the more you get the more you want! And here since the number of books that get published around the world is huge, we barely get 0.5 percent of those books in accessible format. Because producing these books in Braille is a very cumbersome and expensive procedure. So, much as we would like it, we are not able to get everything in Braille. So, pre-Braille, things were very dark but they have improved with Braille, but we have not come a long way even with Braille.

Krishna: So, in the pre-Braille era, typically, a poet like Surdas or Homer who wrote wonderfully well—what you are saying is that they were left to their own devices and their own ingenuity.

Ketan: Absolutely, and they were exceptions and we don’t know really how they must have managed. That is the reason they were exceptions rather than rule.

Krishna: You were also saying barely 5 percent of material is available—

Ketan: 0.5 percent

Krishna: Yeah, 0.5 percent. I stand corrected. So what exactly is the problem and how can it be resolved?

Ketan: You know, we have a variety of problems. One, initially, in India especially, we had restrictions in our copyright law whereby we could not convert books freely into accessible formats other than Braille because copyright restrictions did not allow us. It was actually legally a punishable offence if we scanned books and converted them into accessible formats without seeking permission from the rights holder of the book. That really prevented majority of books from being made available to print disabled people. And the other problem that still persists—that is with the Indian language text-to-speech hindrance. The third problem is even the publishers are not aware of the needs of the print disabled. They do not look at us as a business group so they don’t really bother to make things born-accessible.

Krishna: Right. That’s an interesting term you used—born-accessible. But before we come to that term I just wanted to ask you about the major battle that you and a lot of people waged to get the copyright law amended—the Copyright Law of India amended. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

Ketan: Well, the whole process started in 2006 or slightly prior to that when Copyright Law was about to be amended for something else and Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), Sightsavers, DAISY Forum of India—which is an organisation consisting of more than 90 agencies who are involved in producing accessible books—all got together and started convincing government to make amendments which would enable blind and print-disabled people to have access to these books. But we used to have a lot of problems because we used to talk to bureaucrats—they were convinced and then got transferred. We met politicians for whom this was not a very important subject because they did not view print disabled as a major vote-bank. But howsoever it may be, after a lot of struggle we were able to get this law amended in 2012. In fact, on 22nd May 2012, the Lok Sabha passed the amendment and that was a big, big victory for the print disabled community of this country. Not only that, this has led to a global treaty which is now being discussed and ratified by many countries which is known as Treaty for the Blind or WIPO Treaty or Marrakesh Treaty which enables import of accessible books into each other’s countries…

Krishna: At least for sharing…

Ketan: Absolutely, so that you don’t have to duplicate what you have already done because it is very costly to produce accessible books.

Krishna: Why then is the problem still far from being resolved even though you have managed to make so many landmark advocacy arrangements, you’ve managed to get an amendment to the Copyright Act? Yet why is the problem still so far away from being resolved?

Ketan: The main obstacle that I find is the mindset of people, especially publishers, because they fear—at a certain level rightly so—that it would lead to piracy if everybody would be allowed to convert books into accessible formats. But then we are trying to convince them that we will have measures in place so that we can safeguard their interests but at the same time give access to print disabled people. And the other problem as I told you earlier is the text-to-speech—non-availability of good text-to-speech engines in Indian languages and there is a third problem that is—specially with us—is that even when publishers allow books to be converted into accessible format it leads to a lot of cost and time consumption. It would be very nice if they were to follow certain guidelines which would enable the book to be made accessible right at the design level—which is not happening today. What I just said about ‘born accessible.’ That is not happening and that leads to a lot of hardship.

Krishna: So you are saying a lot of battles have been won but there is still a very, very long road ahead.

Ketan: I will say the battles have been won but the war is still on.

Krishna: Oh, that’s interesting, Ketan! A personal question. Which is your favourite book or who is your favourite author?

Ketan: Well, there are different genres that I love reading, specially because I am a student of political science, I love books that have a political bent. Till now the book that I have really enjoyed is Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody. A book about an American lady who had married an Iranian person and her hardships. But there have been many other books that have impressed me…I am fortunate because I speak 4 languages and I can read in all 4 languages. There are certain books in Marathi that I really cherish. It’s a mixture.

Krishna: Thanks, Ketan, for those views and those insights into the print access movement and the whole movement that enables people who are print disabled to read. Much appreciate it. Thank you.

Transcript of the conversation provided by Beena Choksi.

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