Mr Chandrashekar wasn’t in the place when I arrived. I was an hour late. The security guard called his phone to say he had a visitor, at which point Chandru — as the others called him — apologised for being away. He said he’d be back in ten minutes. I waited.
At this time, I had no idea what Samarthanam Trust was about. Was it a hostel for the blind? Judging from the address, I had expected to arrive at someone’s private apartment. People walked in and out. Some were clearly visually impaired. Others were not. A school, perhaps?
Chandru arrived shortly, apologised again (I protested weakly), then lead me upstairs to the office room, where he introduced me to the others. When I asked about the place, he played an introductory video on his computer. Samarthanam is a trust for the disabled that has been operational since 1997. It initially catered to the visually impaired but has since expanded to accommodate other physically and economically challenged students.
Somewhere in this process came the realisation that Chandru too was blind. And yet, he had walked in the door unassisted, introduced himself, lead me up the stairs, and operated his computer to show me a video that he himself couldn’t see. We had even corresponded over email. He explained that he was using “Jaws” screen-reading software, which provides audible feedback for all on-screen and keyboard activity.
We then turned to the subject of braille-embossed cards. He took one of my cards, felt it to determine which side was up (possible because the print creates subtle mounds on the paper), and put it in a machine called the brailler.
Braille is a six-digit binary encoding scheme, arranged in two columns of three rows each. The dots are numbered column-first, 1, 2, 3 and 4, 5, 6. Grade 1 Braille uses one six-digit code for each letter, while the more commonly used Grade 2 Braille features contractions for common words like “to” and letter combinations like “sh”. It’s easy to pick up visually. In just one sitting with the sample cards Chandru showed me, I could learn to recognise several letters. Look up the Wikipedia page on Braille for more. The brailler features nine keys, they being newline, 1, 2, 3, space, 4, 5, 6 and backspace, from left to right.
Figuring out where to position the characters on the card took a while, for Chandru required assistance aligning with the printed letters, but after just one sample card, he was able to pick a new card from the stack, figure out which side was up, align the card in the brailler, type, and move to the next, completely unassisted. In about half an hour, he had braille-embossed all my cards.
Chandru at work. Picture posted with permission.
The organisation facilitating this, Esha, operates out of Bombay and Bangalore. Getting your cards braille-embossed (at a rupee each) provides financial assistance to the visually impaired, while helping sensitise others to being disabled-friendly. If you want your cards embossed too, contact Nidhi Kaila of Esha at Esha_braille AT yahoo DOT com.
Here’s my card, showing the company name and my first name in braille. The leading dot (position 6) indicates that the following letter is uppercase.