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Braille newspaper shows blind new world
RICK WESTHEAD  MUMBAI | 22nd May 2011

Parimala Bhat reads Sparshdnyan, one of the world’s few newspapers to cater to the visually impaired.

rom delicious billion-dollar scandals to uplifting tales of the human condition and narratives about the country's economic progress, India boasts a bountiful supply of compelling stories.

Parimala Bhat wants to know about all of them. But the 52-year-old Mumbai resident is blind and for years she had to rely on TV news channels to satisfy her craving for news.

No more.

For the past several years, Bhat has subscribed to Sparshdnyan, a local newspaper that has carved itself an unusual niche in India's surging media industry: the paper, whose name translates to "knowledge by touch" is written in Braille, making it one of the world's few newspapers to cater to the visually impaired.

"You know how satisfying it is to sit and just read," says Bhat, a healthcare worker with Air India. "It's the same for the blind. The TV and radio are fine, but I love being able to save my paper for the night-time when I'm by myself and get involved in a story. It's a different sense reading the paper instead of listening to news. It's just incredibly satisfying."

Published twice a month, Sparshdnyan is sent to about 400 subscribers in Maharashtra. While its circulation may be modest, readership is growing fast. Most issues are sent to institutes for the blind, where each copy is read by an estimated 60 people. The paper's readership is estimated at about 24,000, says editor Swagat Thorat.

Three-year-old Sparshdnyan would seem to be a notable success story in India's vibrant media sector. A team of local journalists volunteer their time to write for the paper, which averages about 48 pages per issue, and readers and government officials alike praise its coverage of local politics and social issues, Thorat says.

"We get about 600 to 700 letters to the editor every month," says the 50-year-old. "We have readers from ten-years-old to 80 but I think more than half, probably 60%, are between 18 and 35."

Thorat isn't the first news editor who has recognised there's a market for the visually impaired.

Some newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal, offer a service that reads newspapers over the phone at a 300-words-a-minute clip, twice the speed of the average conversation. It maybe informative, but it can hardly be called relaxing. There are also computer programs offering text-to-speech programs that similarly read stories aloud.

And while technology sure has improved the immediacy of news for the visually impaired, there are still a handful of newspapers that rely on centuries-old Braille.

A student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Louis Braille in the 1820s adapted a cipher language of bumps, called night writing, which was created by a French Army officer for soldiers to send secret messages in the dark. Braille developed a method of writing using a pattern of dots aligned in two vertical rows — the letter "A" for instance, is a represented by a single dot in the upper left corner.

Braille newspapers have been published in locations including Italy, Japan, Ethiopia and California.

But even Braille supporters say there are drawbacks to the practice. The paper required for it is expensive and thick, making publications expensive to produce. The National Braille Press in Boston, for instance, recently printed the Harry Potter series in Braille, a 56-volume effort with each volume nearly a foot tall.

Sparshdnyan's news slant is eclectic. A recent issue featured the review of an autobiography by a local college professor who is blind, an editorial on corruption, an issue that has dominated headlines across newspapers this summer, and a feature story about doctors who overmedicate.

There was also a section giving advice about public speaking, a travel story on the Maharashtra district of Raigad, where tourists flock to hiking trails 1,000 metres above sea level, a recipe for keema pulao, and a general knowledge quiz.

"We cover almost everything," Thorat says, "but there are a few topics we don't like."

One, surprisingly, is India's national passion: cricket.

"The paper we use is very expensive because it's so thick for the Braille and I just don't want to waste it on a topic that is covered in so many other places," he says. "I want to make sure we have more on things like science technologies, missions to Mars, and maybe more on India's foreign policy." Despite positive reviews from his readers, it hasn't been all happy news for Sparshdnyan.

For three years, the advertising company that has worked with Thorat has failed to sell a single ad in his paper. It begs the question, why hasn't he sacked his partner and found someone else to broker deals with local advertisers.

"I still want a future with them and hope they can turn it around but I am starting to think about getting someone new," says Thorat, who refuses to identify the company that's said to be searching for ads for Sparshdnyan.

Thorat, who also produces documentary films about India's wildlife, says he covers his Rs 30,000 administrative costs by selling wildlife photos and films. A group of supporters pay the monthly bill of Rs 30,000 for paper. Since the paper is written in Braille, postage is free.

"It's important that this newspaper be published," says Suchita Shaha, a Mumbai psychologist who has raised Rs 50,000 from friends and neighbours to help cover Thorat's expenses. "It's not like it is in the West. There are no facilities here in India for the blind, no seeing-eye dogs. We need to do more to help."

Despite his difficulties attracting advertisers, Thorat says he believes that there's a demand for more Braille newspaper coverage. An estimated 10 million Indians are visually impaired and within a year, Thorat plans to launch a daily title.

"It will require about Rs 400,000 and this time I'll be running it as a proper business investment only," he says.

One reason he's optimistic about a daily is that government policy in Maharashtra prevents public-sector advertising in publications that don't publish at least weekly. A daily Braille newspaper, Thorat says, would draw ads for various employment schemes and other government programs.

"I still think private companies will come around," Thorat says. "Right now, the blind in India just aren't being looked at as consumers. Companies don't realise that they still buy hair oil and toothpaste and cellphones."

Sitting next to a roadside tea stall where local men sipped on steaming masala tea, despite the oppressive Mumbai summer heat and humidity, Bhat, the Air India official, says she's come to love her bi-weekly newspaper fix.

"It seems like I start saying 'is it here yet' on the first day of every month until it finally comes," Bhat says with a gleeful laugh.

 
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