by Pranav Lal
(Editor’s Note: Pranav Lal is a technology enthusiast and author. He works in cybersecurity for a living. He enjoys traveling and uses a sensory substitution program called the vOICe running on video glasses for enhanced environmental awareness and for framing scenes and taking photographs. He writes short books which are sort of urban fantasy crime thrillers. You can see his technology and photography blog at https://techesoterica.com. His writing is at https://praanavwrites.com.)
India is incredibly diverse. It started as an agglomeration of kingdoms that were first united in 321 BC by Chandragupta Maurya. Modern India has 29 states and 7 union territories. The Indian constitution is the longest in the world. India has a federal form of government with a strong center. There are a myriad of state and central laws. All of this translates into a complex legislative landscape which has a direct impact on disabilities.
India has schools dedicated to the blind as well as for other disabilities. There are a few schools that handle students with multiple disabilities. The bulk of blind schools are in the cities. Many of the schools are run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The more progressive ones, especially in the cities, have moved to mainstreaming. There are, however, plenty of residential schools. Besides regular education, most blind schools teach blindness skills; many of them also teach independent living skills. There are a few government-supported schools. Most NGOs are funded by donations. A lot of the blind schools are residential. Many children come from distant villages, and it is not possible for them to return home each night. Moreover, given the skills gap between them and other students, residential programs have been found to work the best.
As for the aforementioned NGOs, there are many blindness organizations in India. Some examples are National Association for the Blind, The Blind Relief Association, The Saksham Trust, Mitra Jyoti and the All India Confederation of the Blind. There are plenty more. However, most of them do not have large endowments, and funds are a constant challenge. Most rely upon corporate donations. Many of them do the same work but focus on their geographies.
There are many braille presses in India, and a lot of textbooks are now available in braille. There is a significant degree of diversity of the school syllabus that is followed across states; therefore, several textbooks need to be produced at the beginning of each school year. The stress these days is on making full-text, full-audio DAISY books. A national library service was launched on August 26, 2016. It lets members borrow books from any library across India. India does have Bookshare access, but it is incomplete due to the lack of access to books published in the USA despite there being equivalent legislation to the Chafee amendment. India has access to audio books from Audible, but many titles are not available due to publishers’ restrictions.
Mobility is taught at an early age. India is a cane-only country. Guide dogs do not work due to economic, cultural and infrastructure factors. India’s roads are complex. Curbs and sidewalks are few and far between, and traffic is not uniform. The road has auto rickshaws, cars, buses, bicycles, stray dogs, the occasional cow and a variety of hand carts and motorbikes. There are several startups and student projects working on assistive devices to solve the navigation challenge. Mobility skills are taught by NGOs and at schools for the blind. In many cases, trainers visit the student and work with them to handle frequently traveled routes. A lot of blind people use GPS on their mobile phones. The mobile phone has emerged as the primary gateway through which blind people access information. Many of them use more than one phone. For example, those who cannot afford smartphones use feature phones with different capabilities, e.g., a person would use one phone for listening to DAISY books, one phone to hear the time and the final phone for calling. Android is the most popular operating system.
Transportation is a challenge. In the cities, there are regular taxis as well as services such as Uber. The Indian railways have taken some steps to make trains accessible, such as braille labeling coaches, but these have not been fully deployed. There are tactile tiles on platforms to indicate a change in surface.
As for sports, there is blind cricket and a few other games that are taught at schools for the blind. Some sports, such as blind cricket, are funded. There is a growing interest in adventure sports and in travel, where companies serving the disabled have sprung up to meet this demand. It is possible to go rafting, trekking, zip lining, etc.
Education is a core element of Indian middle-class psyche. The number of educated blind people is on the rise. It has become easier to get books in accessible formats in higher education, though much needs to be done, especially in STEM subjects. Getting textbooks with accessible diagrams is a work in progress. A few universities have accessibility departments that help students get material in accessible format. Getting lecture notes in accessible format remains a challenge because many teachers still use the blackboard. Another problem in education is the use of scribes. Many competitive exams that an applicant must take to enter university still have this requirement. There have been written guidelines issued by the courts which have allowed blind applicants to take exams independently by using a computer.
The job market is growing. There are blind programmers, teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, bankers, etc. There are plenty of challenges, though, not only in terms of getting jobs but also once they are employed. For example, a blind person may be employed in a bank as a manager, but the bank will not give him any work. There is affirmative action when it comes to government jobs. Some blind people have been successful in bridging the government and private sectors. One example of this is the UID scheme, a national identity card scheme launched some years ago. The process of getting the card was accessible. Talking about accessibility, there are jobs in that area, both for serving international customers and in auditing government websites. Some private sector concerns have begun to recognize its value, though there is a lack of awareness among developers. Most private sector initiatives are funded via the corporate social responsibility route.
India has emerged as an innovation hub for braille displays. Orbit Research, the producer of the Orbit Reader and the Graphiti display, is based in the state of Gujarat. Innovision, the producer of the Braille Me display, is located in Mumbai, while IIT Delhi, the producer of the Dot book display and notetaker, is situated in Delhi. Many of these products are being sold internationally.
Most television programs in India are not audio-described. There are a handful of movies that have been audio-described, but these are done on an ad hoc basis. There is a growing need to build awareness in the film industry of audio description. There are unique challenges with Indian cinema. Many movies contain songs. These are not musicals, but there is plenty of action taking place within the song, and the story is moving forward. No one is quite sure about how to audio describe such a video.
Many of you may be wondering about the blind experience with COVID-19. There were fears that blind people relying on touch would be ostracized. There have been no public reports of that. However, the rest of the story is not so good.
As I write this in May 2021, India is experiencing its second wave; case numbers are climbing. Cases have risen because a majority of people do not engage in COVID-appropriate behavior. You will see people wearing masks in the cities but in rural India, anti-COVID measures are virtually a joke. The belief is that COVID is a “rich man’s disease.” I have been out several times, and the hardest part for me as a blind person is to maintain social distance, because few other people maintain it.
Doctors and hospital staff are overstretched, and there is plenty of misinformation out there. Despite what media reports may show, the apocalypse is not here by a long shot. Families and other people have come together, and there are plenty of volunteers who have pitched in to help. In addition, some e-commerce companies have put accessible processes in place to aid delivery of food and other essentials.
Paying for those essentials is another matter. Most retailers have their own apps with varying levels of accessibility, and most of these companies do not have a phone number to call. Blind people need to use social media and sometimes e-mail to report accessibility challenges. A few companies have well-trained staff who do help, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand. You may well wonder, “What happened to good old cash?”
If you buy from retail traders, cash is the preferred mode of payment. Using cash is not easy. India’s currency is the rupee. There are, however, two series of bank notes in circulation. As of April 26, 2019, current circulating banknotes are in denominations of ₹5, ₹10, ₹20, ₹50 and ₹100 from the Mahatma Gandhi Series and in denominations of ₹10, ₹20, ₹50, ₹100, ₹200, ₹500 and ₹2,000 from the Mahatma Gandhi New Series. The old series notes are relatively easy to recognize by their differing sizes. This is not the case for the new series notes.
The current solution is to provide a mobile phone app to handle currency recognition. The app works, but you have the challenge of coordinating your cane, a laptop and a mobile phone. The situation is sort of settled, but COVID and the consequent lockdowns have slowed down the pace of development.
Life in India is a grand adventure irrespective of abilities. Blindness adds spice to it. There is no Social Security, no formalized reader services, but strong human networks exist along with locally developed technology, such as the smart cane that warns you of approaching obstacles before they collide with you. Finally, watch out for that GPS-toting Indian tourist with his shiny new COVID passport at an airport near you.