One For All
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The importance of making information accessible and universal.
In the late 1990s, when I was an undergraduate student studying English Literature, a professor asked me if I could volunteer to write exam papers for a student with visual impairment, Milind, who was one year my senior. It was my first encounter with a student with a visual challenge, and it changed my experience and understanding of education. I had always found comfort in the world of words and stories. When I first met Milind, I soon realised that he was being excluded from this world of reading and writing that I had taken for granted. With most of the prescribed textbooks not available in Braille and none of the reference material in libraries accessible, he was dependent on volunteers and disability support organisations to audio-record the texts so that he could access them. His library was made of audio-cassettes scratched from over-use, which did not offer him the options of re-visiting, annotating, and close-reading. And when I wrote the exams for him, writing as he dictated, I was left humbled and inspired by his strong commitment to educating himself. The phone call I received when he got his English Literature degree, and our celebratory dinner, remain one of my happiest memories as an undergraduate student.
That experience made me realise, for the first time the exclusivity of the world of books and print. While print and paper industries have helped democratise knowledge and provided us access to store and retrieve knowledge through ages and time, they are also technologies of exclusion. Reading has been so naturalised in our everyday life, that we have almost forgotten that it is a visual medium. A book is not easily accessible to people who do not have the privilege or capacity to be literate. A book can also exclude with jargon and dense languages, which are the stronghold of an elite few. And more than anything else, it stays, if you will excuse the pun, a closed book, to people with visual impairment.
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