One For All
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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.
Like many who might have encountered second-person disability, I have never done much to change our society. I might have done some volunteer work, or signed petitions for better infrastructure, but the interventions have been minimal and almost non-existent. I think about this today, because on February 7, 2013, one of the strongest and most powerful voices that has been fighting apathetic government systems, moribund policies and indifferent social attitudes towards visually challenged people, Rahul Cherian, died due to ill-health. Cherian, who was the co-founder of the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy and a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, where I work, was a disability policy activist who realised the potential of the digital world, to make information and knowledge accessible to those who were previously discriminated against.
Cherian firmly believed that the digital interfaces would provide new access to information and knowledge to those who live with visual disability. If we implement global standards to ensure that the text on the internet can be read out loud by text-to-speech devices, we would have a new democratisation of information that allows people to engage with the Web. His spirit and enthusiasm was infectious as he resolutely worked at persuading technology developers and holding governments responsible for implementing accessibility protocols to make information in the digital age open.
He was committed to digitising printed resources in formats which allowed deeper engagement and manipulation of text through voice and keyboard-based controls. He fought against intellectual property right regimes which disallow books to be converted into formats that can be accessible to open source and free screen readers and text-to-speech engines. Cherian worked at collectively harnessing the powers of the digital towards building a just and inclusive society that made me recognise how deep-seated our blind spots are, when we look at the mainstream and the popular. His work made me understand that the battles for open knowledge and open access are not only economic in nature. That the digital book projects offer new inroads for those previously excluded, into the world of knowledge and information. I feel honoured to have shared conversations and working spaces with him, and know that his passing will leave a large hole, in the lives of those who knew him, as well as the political movement that demands better access for inclusion of people with disability.
Today, I want to take this moment of loss, to remind myself of something that sometimes gets forgotten — the digital technologies that we take for granted and often use just for fun, have a strong potential for social and political change. While it is great that the digital world has offered new spaces for content generation, information sharing, cultural production and social connection, it also has the potential to build safe, just and inclusive information societies. I don't know if we should buy into the rhetoric that the next global war is going to be around information, but we should remember that information is definitely worth fighting for and making accessible to all.
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