Imagine deciphering mathematical theorems, understanding geography, and learning the human body without the aid of visuals? Visually impaired students are obligated to study theory-based subjects as it is difficult to understand certain concepts without graphical aid.
According to the 2011 census, India is home to more than 5 million individuals with visual impairment, the largest in any country. Yet out of all the children with visual impairment, only 10% get any formal education.
For children with vision loss, their education and aspirations are curbed due to a lack of learning material. Braille books do not accommodate diagrams which are crucial for subjects like maths and science. Hence, these subjects are made optional post 8th Grade. This lack of access to STEM subjects shortens their career opportunities and eliminates any pursuit of new-age tech jobs.
To bridge the gap, a team from IIT Delhi, Pulkit, Piyush, Kunal and Lipika set up Raised Lines Foundation (RLF) that uses 3D printing to produce high-quality yet affordable tactile diagrams along with textual content for books in print as well as in Braille. Tactile diagrams consist of raised lines and textures that can be used by the visually impaired to understand the graphical information using their sense of touch. RLF aims to empower every student with visual impairment to choose subjects by choice and not by compulsion.
Making storybooks to guitar manuals accessible
Pulkit points out that at an early age children learn the alphabet by reading ABC picture books. While those with visual impairment need something they can touch/feel to learn the same.
The team at RLF have developed a range of tactile books. Right from storybooks – classics such as The Thirsty Crow, The Tortoise and the Hare to curriculum-related books such as NCERT textbooks, team RLF is expanding the horizon for kids as well as young adults to learn and experience the world. They have also published concept-based books such as a mathematics primer, general knowledge books such as World Atlas, Indian and World monuments. They even launched a book to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary that included tactile diagrams of Gandhi’s iconic glasses, lathi, and three monkeys!
Going beyond activities and stories, team RLF has also converted learning manuals to help visually impaired children use a computer or even learn to play the guitar! Understanding how visual computer screens work, RLF developed tactile layouts of concepts like Bold and Italics. With this simple but important development, students now understood that Italics is not just ‘Ctrl+l’ but know what it feels like. The guitar manual indicates how to play different chords using different finger positions. Currently, the team is developing a manual for using a smartphone. RFL has also created manuals on menstrual hygiene management and has added diagrams in the book, ‘Yogikasparsh – Resource for Teaching Yoga Asanas’ for yoga postures.
Till date, RLF has produced 6,500 tactile supplement books, and more than 1,50,000 tactile copies of 2,000 unique diagrams in maths, science, geography, and economics books.
Teaching aids for holistic development
Apart from making books accessible to kids, teachers and parents require adequate resources to create individualised learning material for children who not do have the ability to see. To this end, Raised Lines Foundation has developed DIY graph kits which will enable a teacher, parent, or person with visual impairment to create their graphs. They even have a geometry kit to help create different diagrams. These kits ensure that no student is left out of the academic learning process and have the opportunity to learn by creating.
RLF also recently initiated a Touch Learn and Shine program to increase the adoption of accessible books. Under this program, they reach out to schools to understand their requirements, raise funds, develop accessible books, and train the teachers and parents on how to use the books. Currently, Pulkit and his co-founders are looking for collaborators and contributions for this program. If you think you can help, reach out to them.
Creating access, building inclusivity
RLF’s work isn’t solely focussed on only developing educational material; the team also develops material that adds value to the individual’s life.
“Every person with visual impairment has a favourite colour. For example, if a girl is told by her mother that she looks pretty in pink, pink becomes her favourite colour! They learn by association.
They know the sun is bright and yellow. So now, everything that is yellow is bright. They ‘perceive’ colours rather than ‘see’ it”.- Pulkit Sapra
Team RLF has designed a colouring kit. In this kit, elements such as the sun have a raised outline. For a student with VI studying in an inclusive school, this colouring kit is the difference between having to sit alone in one corner during the ‘activity’ class, and participating with the rest of their classmates in colouring.
Collaborating with organisations with a shared vision
Pulkit and his co-founders believe in collaboration and playing to every one’s strengths to create access for people with visual impairment. Instead of reinventing the wheel, RLF partners with organisations creating content for people with visual impairment. They have collaborated with organisations such as NCERT, Enable India, Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged amongst others to develop their existing content into an accessible format.
For instance, RLF has converted the NCERT Science and Mathematics textbooks for grades 6, 9, and 10 into an accessible format. Currently, they are working on converting Grade 7 and 8 textbooks. With Enable India, known for empowering people with VI through computer and livelihoods training, RLF has converted their training manuals into an accessible format.
Team RLF collaborates with schools, non-profits and other organisations to reach out to people with visual impairment and provide them with resources.
On being asked what keeps him going, Pulkit shares one of his favourite memories of interacting with a student with VI. He says, “The first time I showed the map of India to a 5th grader he asked me, ‘Sir, the Pakistan-India fight happened here? If Bangladesh is surrounded by India on so many sides, why isn’t it a part of India?’ The things we take for granted; they are curious about! I still remember the smile on his face and my face.”
The path forward
In 5 years, Pulkit envisions providing curriculum books under the Government flagship program, Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan. This will ensure that many more schools will be able to provide these accessible books. They are also working towards building a library of accessible books on a diverse range of topics.
Pulkit joined UnLtd India’s Incubation Program for social entrepreneurs in July 2020 to strengthen his work and deepen RLF’s impact. In the next 5 years, Team RLF is determined to reach 1 lakh students through a focused outreach program to create awareness of RLF’s resources.
You can also support RLF’s mission in enabling students with visual impairment to learn new concepts, experience the unexplored, and completely redefining what a VI student can achieve. To support, contribute here.