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Braille magazine charts commercial course

White Print, India's first English-language lifestyle magazine for blind, celebrates its first year as enterprise.

Last updated: 10 Jun 2014 09:50
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The magazine now has 100 subscribers and 200 copies are given away to colleges [Suhit Kelkar/ Al Jazeera]

Mumbai, India - India's first English-language lifestyle magazine for the visually impaired is charting a new course as a commercial venture aiming to stand on its own two feet in the media market.

White Print, which is celebrating its first successful year as an enterprise, is transforming braille publishing by providing readers with mainstream news and original features.

The monthly publication is targeting a potentially huge market of more than five million blind people and has already gained recognition for its pioneering approach from India's Limca Book of Records.

Its editor and publisher, Mumbai-based Upasana Makati, 25, was a public relations professional in Canada before relocating to India to set up a business after a brainstorm.

"I wondered how blind people read, and if there was a magazine for them at all," says Makati, who graduated in communications in Mumbai.

Her 64-page monthly magazine now has 100 subscribers and 200 copies are given away to colleges in India.

Serving the disadvantaged

In a basement on the southern shore of Mumbai, a Norwegian-made Braillo 440SW printer swallows paper then churns out page after page of the raised dots that comprise braille.

The machine is in the offices of India's National Association for the Blind (NAB), one of 12 such braille presses in the country.

Its print jobs are sponsored by the government or philanthropists - yet White Print is a commercial product. For the workers in the press, however, all jobs are alike.

Braille publications have to be hand-bound, in order to protect the print. "We spend eight, sometimes 12 hours in our work per day. I go home only once in eight days," BT More, head of the binding department, told Al Jazeera.

After putting in roughly 20 years, More earns 15,000 rupees ($255) a month, far less than he would make in a mainstream press - but he wouldn't give up his job for anything.

Standing in front of stacked school textbooks to which he is attaching spines, More said: "We are satisfied doing this work for the disadvantaged in our society."

Nascent braille market

Before launching her venture, Makati interviewed blind people who told her about what was already out there in the nascent braille market: some braille magazines in a couple of India's 20 regional languages, and weekly and quarterly news and science digests in the local Marathi language and in English - both with circulations of 100 copies.

In addition, 1,200 copies of Reliance Drushti, a free fortnightly newspaper, are brought out by the philanthropic wing of a corporation.

But there was no general magazine for the blind in English - something potential readers impressed upon Makati that they longed for.

Nor were existing hi-tech reading options satisfying many visually challenged Indians who are tech-savvy, such as  text-to-speech (TTS) software that reads out articles on the internet in a robotic-sounding voice.

White Print reader and TTS user Muhammad Ashfaq Rawther, 20, a political science graduate, told Al Jazeera that most Indian news sites which he reads are cluttered and have long pages that at times confuse TTS applications.

Furthermore, reading braille is a pleasure that TTS cannot match. "Using the screen-reader, we cannot visualise [the story]," said Rawther. "Using braille, we can. And braille gives us a better idea of spelling and grammar [than TTS does]."

Original writing

No mainstream publications in India have braille versions - a reflection of the weakness of blind people as a lobby in the country.

Moreover, unlike countries such as the US, India has no non-profit organisation to convert mainstream publications into braille, Raman Shankar, NAB director, told Al Jazeera.

Upasana Makati left her job in Canada before relocating to India to start the magazine [Suhit Kelkar/Al Jazeera]

That is why Makati concentrates on publishing original writing such as reviews of India's first Braille smartphone and a shoe designed for the blind that uses a smartphone's GPS receiver to help wearers navigate.

But White Print does not restrict itself to reports linked to disability and provides blind readers curious about the wider world with mainstream news, Makati said.

"Our readers say: tell us something from outside the community," she told Al jazeera.

Last year, for example, a reader requested an article about the Hindi film actress Katrina Kaif - he could not see her but liked her voice so much that he followed her movies, Makati said.

Kriti Banga, a 22-year-old training to be a disc jockey, said she reads the magazine chiefly for its profiles of successful people and its motivational articles.

There is political coverage in the form of a column by popular journalist Barkha Dutt. Rawther says that he followed the magazine's election coverage on the war of words between politicians.

The magazine also features articles on cooking, music reviews, fashion tips, as well as short fiction and poems.

Its writers are unpaid volunteers, mostly Makati's friends, and she usually writes the cover story.

All advertisements in White Print are philanthropic - corporate support has kept the magazine afloat, Makati said - and ads feature mostly braille text, although a Coca-Cola ad included an audio clip that played when the centre spread was opened.

Next year, Makati plans to expand her reach to more colleges in India, which should open the door to even more philanthropic advertising.

She aims to take advantage of India's new corporate social responsibility legislation by which companies must set aside some profits to support social causes.

And Makati's efforts make her a living example of the theme that will dominate the magazine's one-year anniversary issue - it will be filled with interviews of successful Indians from all walks of life.

Follow Suhit Kelkar on Twitter: @suhitkelkar

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Al Jazeera
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