A Digital Book Library for Blind Students Is Helping Them Visualise a Bright Future
Bengaluru based Samarthanam Trust for Disabled has 5,000 audio books to help students with disabilities achieve their educational goals. More are being added every day by an army of volunteers because the goal of the founder, Mahantesh, is to have the entire university syllabus available in audio format.
Mahantesh G. Kivadasannavar was just six months old when he lost his eyesight due to typhoid. But, as he grew, the loss of sight never came in the way of his vision to educate himself and be independent. He completed his MPhil and became a lecturer. But, this was just the beginning.
Mahantesh wanted to support other people like himself to get an education as good as their non-disabled peers. He wanted to see people with disabilities become taxpayers and not dole recipients.
In a farsighted move, Mahantesh started the Samarthanam Trust for Disabled in 1997 in Bengaluru, which focuses on providing facilities, infrastructure, technology, and all possible need-based support to disabled and underprivileged students.
Being visually impaired, Mahantesh knew the problems faced by people with disabilities. Though he had completed his higher studies, he remembered how difficult the process had been. “I had to depend upon others to study. It was difficult for me to understand the lessons because not every book was available in braille and audio format,” recalls Mahantesh.
Keeping the woes of visually impaired students in mind, Mahantesh started a digital book library in May 2008 to reach out to print-disabled students (visually impaired, slow-learners and dyslexic children).
The digital book library enables users to access books on their mobile phones in audio format.
A digital studio was set up with support from Philips and Tech Mahindra. Using software like JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech) and DAISY (Digital Access Information System), printed books are converted to audio format, enabling students to listen to them using MP3 players on their devices like mobile phones and laptops.
The books mostly benefit students between the age of 15 and 35 years. Most of the books converted are from the prescribed syllabus by the state.
“The main idea is to smoothen the education for visually impaired kids who have to go from pillar to post to get their books read,” says Mahantesh.
The Samarthanam team trains a team of volunteers who can usually convert a book of about 500 pages into audio format in a month. The volunteers, who are shortlisted after a round of auditions, are trained in good pronunciation, voice modulation, voice clarity, etc., to make the audio files as clear and perfect as possible. Currently, the Samarthanam team has about 400 volunteers who work with the organization on a regular basis.
The audio books are available in English, Hindi and Kannada and can be accessed by contacting the Samarthanam team. If a particular book is not already available in the digital library, the team converts it for the user within a month’s time.
The books are recorded and edited to ensure optimum quality. Also, books are scanned and edited so that visually challenged people can access the content in audio mode using screen-reading software.
“We want to make the entire university syllabus available to visually challenged students in audio format,” says Mahantesh.
The initiative, which was started six years ago, now has over 5,000 books in its library and has reached out to over 2,000 visually impaired people.
If you would like to access a book from this digital library, all you have to do is contact Samarthanam for the catalogue and select the book of your choice. The audio file will be sent to you, which you can access from your phone.
“We don’t just have course books, but other inspirational books too. For instance, our collection of books by Abdul Kalam is highly popular,” says Mahantesh.
Raghavendra is one such student who has benefitted from the audio books. After struggling for several years to get someone to read for him, he was relieved to hear of the digital book library. He got the required books and went on to complete his MBA. He now has a government job and earns a handsome salary.
“Just like Raghavendra, we have many more students who got selected in IIM and scored extremely well in CAT. There are so many students who managed to complete their education against many odds,” says Mahantesh.
Samarthanam has faced many challenges in getting these 5,000 books ready for its audience. It wasn’t easy to train the staff and also to get publishers to agree to have their books converted to audio. The organisation still faces a financial crunch and survives on a few donations.
Mahantesh, who has dedicated his entire life to this cause, wants to expand this initiative and replicate it in other cities too.
First published on The Better India