Shyam Kishore began his classes of Braille, a script based on touch for visually impaired persons to read and write. All students with their Braille slate started to write sentences dictated by Kishore, and got completely engrossed in their learning. Abhishek, one of the students, wrote, “I live in Delhi” faster than a sighted person wrote the same on paper.
“I like Braille,” he said with a chuckle.
Kishore, who himself is visually impaired, is a massage trainer at the Blind Relief Association, a Delhi-based NGO working for the empowerment of visually impaired persons. He started to train his students in Braille last year. He believes that Braille is “very important” for a blind person to become “self-dependent” and “every visually impaired should learn Braille”.
All of his students have learnt basic Braille – they can read and write alphabets, but not more than that, as most of them studied only till high school. These students are enrolled in a vocational course to become professional masseurs, but are also eager to learn Braille, which is a medium for them to communicate with other visually impaired persons.
“All of the communication of visually impaired persons is oral, so Braille provides an alternative with which we can communicate among ourselves,” said Kishore.
Developed by French educator Louis Braille in 1824, Braille was a crucial invention that helped visually impaired persons to access reading and writing. It was a complicated system but it was later simplified. It consists of raised dots arranged in a “cell”. It is based on the permutation and combination of these dots. Each cell represents a word, a punctuation mark, a numeral and a combination of letters.
Louis Braille knew that language is political, and access to communication can help blind people to create an identity for themselves. He said, “Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the visually impaired] are not to go on being despised or patronised by condescending sighted people.”
At the time of Independence, there were around 11 different Braille codes in India. The Indian government wanted to develop a standard code for Indian languages in braille. This led to the development of “Bharati Braille”. It was for all official languages – Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Kannada, Punjabi, Assamese, Malayalam, Nepali, Odia, Telugu, and Urdu.
Bharati Braille is based on phonetics rather than alphabets, so it focuses on sound. “Bharati Braille helped in linguistic inclusion,” said C P Mohanan, an official at the Blind Relief Association.
Most of the institutes prefer teaching English Braille, but that is not a problem, according to Kishore. He said, “If you know English Braille, it is not tough to learn Bharati Braille.” But the biggest challenge is that Braille is not widely recognised. Except in special schools for the visually impaired, schools don’t teach in Braille. Their learning largely takes place in audio form. Taking exams too would require them to look for a “professional scribe”.
Anand Singh, a visually impaired graduate, said, “The peon of my college used to write my exams, because I was not able to find writers.”
In India, there is not a standard system for visually impaired students to take exams in Braille.
“What is wrong with taking exams in Braille?” Singh asks. Also, books translated in Braille get heavy and costly which is also a big concern.
There are now various softwares for screen reading – JAWS, Kurzweil, Abbyy Fine Reader – that help visually impaired persons to listen to reading materials and take exams. Singh added, “But these softwares are not easily accessible and can’t replace Braille. If you ask a visually impaired person who knows Braille, he will always prefer to have books in Braille, not in audio form.”
Kishore agreed to that, “We need good books in Braille. There is a difference between Braille and audio books. Audio books make us dependent, but Braille helps us in not just reading but also writing our thoughts on the paper.”
Availability of books is the biggest problem, especially in science and commerce.
Ajay Kumar, another visually impaired student, thinks that the language of visually impaired people is incomplete without Braille.
Kumar said, “This is the misconception that if you have audio books, you don’t need written books. A language is incomplete without a script, for us Braille is a script and a requirement for our communication.”