Joeanna Rebello Fernandes, TNN 1 November 2009, 06:58am IST
Through his tapering school years, Moiz Tundawala studied via his brother. The brother would read out texts to him as Moiz-who started to show signs of Retinitis Pigmentosa in his teens and whose sight gradually declined-would commit the lessons to memory. Then Moiz decided to study law, and he had to look for another oral tradition. In 2004, he found JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a text-to-speech software that could read out pages of digital text. But scanning a half-ton textbook requires the patience of Job.
“There are limited institutionalised arrangements for the access of study material for the visually impaired,” complains Moiz. “While NAB (National Association for the Blind) does a good job producing basic level texts and popular literature in Braille and audio books, it falls short when it comes to advanced academic material.”
The problem of restricted access to reading material for the visually and print-impaired choruses across the developing world. The cataracts of the Indian government have denied this significant population-the 2001 census counted 13 million visually impaired (VI) people-the fundamental right to read. According to NAB, only 30 per cent of the VI go all the way to Standard X.
But corrective efforts are under way. Moiz recently stumbled upon an online social network and content-sharing platform called Bookbole-floated by an Indian social enterprise called Inclusive Planet in collaboration with the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS). Bookbole is a clean site designed expressly for the VI, with Accessibility for iPhone and iPod touch-a blind user’s review-topping its `most viewed’ list.
The site aims to connect visually and print-impaired (including dyslexic) people around the world and gets them to share their digital archives of class notes, blogs, recipes, articles, audio magazines, theses, sound recordings and e-books. “In three months, Bookbole has managed a 10,000-strong archive with a global member base of 1,000,” says Bookbole’s active ally Soner Coban, a blind English Literature graduate from Bosphorus University in Turkey. “In other systems, you have to wait for the administrator to upload books, but BB users can upload what they want and request for what they’d like.”
“We are trying to connect isolated users and their libraries and enable them to solve one another’s problems,” says Rahul Cherian from Chennai, one of the three co-founders of Inclusive Planet.
“A visually impaired person would have accumulated about 30-40 GB of reading material over time through his own efforts,” Cherian says. “By providing a platform for sharing some of this material we’re trying to minimise the duplication of effort.” Says Reuben Jacob, co-founder and IT brain of the project, “Not all electronic files are readable by text to speech software. But we’ve made sure that the semantics of the shared documents on this site are compatible with screen-reading software.”
NAB has a Talking Books library with 5,000 titles on cassettes and CDs. The VI have to either borrow from the NAB centre itself or request a posted copy. Raman Shankar, project head of Talking Books, says that publishers permit the conversion of their books to audio format on condition that they are only circulated to the blind. While Bookbole currently stipulates that only VI persons join the club and requires new users to indicate this, it doesn’t ask for a sight certificate. “Being global is essential to the way Bookbole works,” insists Sachin Malhan, one of the co-founders of Inclusive Planet. “If we can’t connect similarly placed visually impaired in different parts of the world, then the value won’t be created.” It is unfeasible and impractical to create a body to screen the users across the world. Instead,if they receive a copyright-related complaint about a certain file or of misuse of the site, they will remove the content.
Currently the situation is that an overwhelming majority of publishers don’t make books available for the visually and print-impaired, and for the low-earning VI in India audio books are prohibitively priced as it is. So they have little recourse other than to scan or search for e-books on the internet, a move that automatically makes them culpable by myopic copyright laws.
This is why Inclusive Planet, along with non-profits like the CIS, The Daisy Forum of India and EnAble India, has also launched the Indian chapter of the World Blind Union’s Right to Read campaign. It has been pushing for a greater availability of books in accessible formats and an amendment of copyright laws. “We will present a white paper to the HRD ministry at the end of our six-city Right to Read tour,” says Cherian.