braille2Almost 200 years ago, Louis Braille invented a simple, yet sophisticated reading and writing system of six raised dots. This groundbreaking invention has changed the lives of visually impaired and blind people. One of the advantages of Braille is that it can be translated to almost any language in the world.

As a tribute to the genius of Louis Braille, his birthday January 4, is celebrated as Braille Day all over the world. Braille Day offers an opportunity for organizations working for the blind to showcase their work, promote Braille literacy and educate the public about the issues affecting the blind.

Imagine for a couple of moments how life would be for visually-challenged people in our society. Unless they are one of the few who could attend a blind school, or receive vocational training, life would be tough. Circumstances get complicated if illiteracy and poverty are brought into this picture. For people in rural areas, access to blind schools or vocational training centers is very limited. In most cases, they are unaware that such schools and training centers exist.

According to a Times of India news article, India is home to the world’s largest number of blind people. Of the 37 million people across the world who are blind, over 15 million are from India. What makes this fact worse is that a World Health Organization (WHO) study states 70 to 80 % of all blindness cases in India can be cured.

Limited access to quality eye care, low number of available eye donations at eye banks (need 2.5 lakh donated eyes, collected 25000 eyes, 30% of which cannot be used.) a shortage of optometrists (need about 40000, available 8000), absence of regulatory laws to control the practice of optometry, shortage of faculty in optometry schools in India, and non-alignment of government resources to tackle the issue effectively, indicate that goals of blindness prevention and eradication in India are far from being reached.

This is not to say that we are not moving in the right direction. Numerous health organizations and non-profits working at the grass root level catering to the visually – impaired community are proof of this. Mathru School for the Blind (www.mathrublindschool.org) located in Bangalore enrolls nearly 70 students and employs seven blind teachers. Thanks to advances in technology, there are success stories of blind people able to get jobs in various industries. In 1997, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, launched its multi-lingual editor to enable the blind in India to use computers with speech and Braille options in other Indian languages. Using technologies such as Job Access with Speech (JAWS), Window Eyes, Multilingual Editor or similar software, blind people are now able to operate computers. This has the potential to remove the notion that blind people cannot work or operate computers.

Though use of such software, opening of internet cafes for the blind ( in Chennai), and a digital library for visually challenged students (in Hyderabad) have caught media attention, few people are aware that training facilities for the blind are lacking. Most of the schools and training centers for the blind are poorly organized, have insufficient funds, and/or remain satisfied providing obsolete training to their students. I found the news clip about Andhra Pradesh Government no longer prints books in Braille for students taking up the SSC exams in this March appalling. (https://eksparsh.wordpress.com/2009/01/04/govt-turns-a-blind-eye-to-braille-textbook-demand/)

An increasing awareness and promotion of new technologies in this field is needed. We may tend to take comfort in the fact that our government has brought out a Braille version of the ‘Right to Information’ act, or that the leading watch manufacturer of our country (Titan) recently unveiled Braille watches for visually – impaired people. We need to provide more text books in Braille. We need to provide training and opportunities for visually –impaired people to succeed in today’s fast pace environment. We have the skills, and knowledge resources that are required to prevent/eradicate blindness. Public awareness of the issues facing the blind today, coupled with cooperation from the government will not only help the various nonprofits working tirelessly in this regard, but will also help in preventing/eradicating blindness in our country.

References: 1.  http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/2447603.cms

2.  http://www.thehindujobs.com/thehindu/mag/2003/12/21/stories/2003122100260400.htm