Samaritans for sightless

Four Bhubaneswar-based youths provide free and accessible education for 25,000 visually impaired students in Odisha.
(From left) Nihar Ranjan Das, Bhabani Sankar Parida, Krushna Chandra Tripathy and Abhaya Kumar Mohanta | Shamim Qureshy
(From left) Nihar Ranjan Das, Bhabani Sankar Parida, Krushna Chandra Tripathy and Abhaya Kumar Mohanta | Shamim Qureshy

Four youths from Odisha are doing their bit to change the way visually-impaired students read. At a time when the state is facing acute shortage of Braille books, the classmates are on a mission to provide accessible education to every visually-challenged student through audio books.

Abhaya Kumar Mohanta, Bhabani Sankar Parida, Nihar Ranjan Das and Krushna Chandra Tripathy founded We4You, a Bhubaneswar-based non-profit organisation, six years ago to help blind students. At present, more than 15,000 such students in Odisha are accessing audio books prepared by them for free every year.

The project started when some blind students approached the four for reading out books to them. “We had substituted as writers for them during our school and college days. Even later, they would ask us to read to them to learn a chapter. Blind people are good listeners and memorise well. This is how we decided to record books for this section of the society,” says Abhaya, an engineering graduate.

While the country is home to 12 million blind students, there are only 10 Braille Press units in India, which is not enough to meet the demand. In Odisha, there are around 25,000 blind students (Class 1 to PhD). In schools, libraries keep Braille books but the same are not available in colleges.

The group has roped in 70 volunteers to record books in Odia, Hindi and English, and distribute them to students from Class 7 to PhD level. Volunteers record books at the organisation’s small set-up that has a microphone, an amplifier, air filter, etc. “Volunteers do not even have to come to our studio to record. They can do so sitting at home on their PC or mobile phone,” says Nihar, also an engineering graduate. Students collect the audio files in form of CDs, DVDs or in their cellphones. They also courier books to students living in remote pockets of the state.

These audio books have helped many blind students secure good marks and opt for higher education. Krushna, a programmer at the Odisha Joint Entrance Examination, says the audio books are not replacements of Braille books, but at least it helps blind students read like others.

However, due to huge demand, the group has not been able to supply files to students even after engaging over 70 volunteers. “The number of students is in thousands and we are only a few people engaged in the work. Another issue in Odisha is that different universities follow different books for the same class and the syllabus keeps changing,” says Bhabani, a businessman.

Finance is another problem but they address it by organising corporate events. “Till now we have not received a single penny from the government,” he adds. Even then, they haven’t lost hope. They now want to make audio books for BEd and competitive examinations.

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The New Indian Express