Inspiration and Technology Expand Collection of Accessible Books in India

By Benetech, posted on

“Doing a good service is like throwing a rock into a pond, the ripples just go on and on.”
– Mark Doyle, BBC World Service Correspondent in Rwanda

Nirmal Verma and Vijeta Kapur are on a mission to turn a book famine in India into a feast. This husband and wife team lead a life completely dedicated to the education of students and adults who are visually challenged. Vijeta, who is blind, is a licensed physiotherapist who runs her own clinic. She is also the founder of the Indic Institute, a company that creates audiobooks in English and Hindi and makes them accessible. Her husband, Nirmal, a specialist in visual impairment teaching methodology and a Braille literacy consultant for Perkins, trains teachers at four schools in Pune, India, and also delivers training for book conversion vendors.

Together they are leveraging their combined expertise with technology to improve the literacy of visually-impaired children in India through a project funded by a grant from All Children Reading. Benetech, World Vision, USAID, and other partners are working with local experts like Nirmal and Vijeta to add human-narrated audio capabilities to Bookshare, the world’s largest digital accessible library and Benetech’s flagship Global Literacy initiative. Primary school students who are blind or have low vision will be provided with accessible educational content that they can listen to on low-cost audio devices while they simultaneously read braille.

Vijeta’s struggle to find suitable books to accommodate her lack of vision has made her sympathetic to the plight of other visually-impaired students. Vijeta hails from a highly educated family; her mother, a botanist, and her father, a famous mathematician, stressed the importance of education from a young age. At age fourteen, Vijeta learned she was afflicted with Coat’s Disease, a rare condition that leads to a progressive loss of vision. She eventually lost sight in both eyes, but she didn’t let it prevent her from completing her degree in physiotherapy. It was a constant challenge to find suitable books to accommodate her poor vision, so her father read her textbooks aloud and recorded them onto hundreds of audiotapes. She persevered and became the first visually-challenged woman in India to complete her Bachelor of Science degree in physiotherapy. In 2006, Vijeta started her own practice in Lucknow, Utter Pradesh, and fulfilled a childhood dream.

After running her physiotherapy center for five years, she decided to launch a business creating accessible books for the visually impaired and design a new process for converting books. Indic Institute became the first organization in India to use optical character recognition (OCR) for the Hindi language to create audiobooks in English and Hindi. An added bonus of her business is that she now has access to many new physiotherapy books in Hindi that enables her to better serve the patients at her clinic.

Working with books and patients takes up most of Vijeta’s time. Indic Institute hires many individuals with disabilities, and they learn technical skills and typing in Hindi. With proper training and guidance, many obtain jobs in larger companies or the government sector and advance their careers. Vijeta’s inspirational work over the past decade as a physical therapist, entrepreneur, mentor, wife, and mother has rippled positively through so many lives.

Vijeta has been a Bookshare member since 2009. She always wanted to read Hindi books, but there was

no technology available. Indic converts books to Hindi, makes them accessible, and adds them to the Bookshare library. She places a special emphasis on books related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics, like the ones she read for her physiotherapy courses.

For Vijeta, making books is not just a business, but her life’s passion. “Bookshare is an essential tool for the education of children with print disabilities that can remove the book famine at the grassroots level in India. I hope the day will soon arrive when all of India will log in to Bookshare for their books,” she says.

Collaborating with organizations like Benetech has been a feather in Vijeta and Indic’s cap. She hopes that with the expansion of the Bookshare program across India there will be significant improvements in literacy levels and the availability of reading material. Benetech’s efforts have been in perfect sync with Indic’s goals, and the collaboration is bearing fruit. We offer our heartfelt gratitude to Vijeta, Nirmal, and our other valued partners through All Children Reading. Thanks to them, the ripples just go on and on.