Reading Braille with White Print magazine’s Upasana Makati

More than 9 million people in India are blind and millions more are visually impaired. Yet, a simple question – What do the blind read? – yields only a handful of answers. When weeks of research led Upasana Makati to just a few newsletters printed by the National Association for the Blind, she decided to start White Print, India’s first lifestyle magazine in Braille in May 2013. The monthly magazine offers articles on politics, sports, travel, short stories and more, hoping that the blind can be lost in the reverie of the embossed word and relearn the magic of the Braille script.

What prompted you to start White Print? There was simply no lifestyle magazine for the community. Yes, smartphones, screen readers and audio apps have increased access, but barriers to Braille literature remain. A lot of people say why do you need Braille when there are screen readers and audio books. It’s like asking a sighted person why do you need books, magazines, newspapers and more!

What were the challenges? When I was speaking to people from the community, it was evident that they were tired of being sympathised with. Anybody working for blind is labelled a charity. This does a lot of damage – it shuns progress and keeps the community marginalised. So I decided to not register it as a NGO but as a lifestyle magazine. This meant relying on advertising, which wasn’t easy to come by.

I wrote to a lot of businesses, but many were clueless about Braille and didn’t want to invest in something that was not done before. Out of the 100-200 mails I sent, I got a reply from just one – Raymond. They put in a 5-page ad in the first issue and that became the starting point. Thereafter, we had an ad by Coca-Cola, wherein a jingle played when the centerfold was opened, which became really popular with the community. With the pandemic, we lost our big advertisers and had to start over with smaller companies just so we could keep afloat.

How has the magazine changed over the years? Initially, NAB put me in touch with people from the community so I could understand their requirements and also why such a product didn’t exist. The first edition went out free to everybody on their list, which got us 20 subscribers. We have expanded our subscriber base and grown plenty since then.

People wanted to read about 100 years of cinema so we included that. We have a lot of art, culture, travel pieces. For the last six months, we have included articles on the environment and climate change by partnering with Eco-Spotlight, which offers sustainable solutions and talks to change makers. We also collaborated with Unbias the News, a global newsroom. Besides, there is a section where the readers can share their experiences and stories. Once we had a reader write about how he learnt 28 musical instruments, which got a lot of responses and helped a mini-community of sorts.

You have also published three books for children…We started children’s books because a friend remarked that we don’t see blind children in bookstores. The reason for that is that most bookstores don’t have anything they can read. So I thought it’s important to reach out, share my experiences and talk to the sighted community as well. Look Out, Look Within came out in 2018, followed by our e-book Flowers for Sunaina in 2020. The books champion inclusion and teach kids to celebrate differences. Last year, I ended up writing my first book – Run Saba Run – which is a simple story around sports, with a blind protagonist that just sees the world a little differently. There’s also Tactabet, a Braille alphabet book that we have in English and Hindi that pairs letters with tactile pictures.

Some people who are helping drive this inclusion as well…We are a small community of people, our problems are the same. There’s a startup that makes Braille literacy devices for the visually impaired. Their product, Annie, helps students with gamified audio lessons and aims to drive Braille literacy across the country.

Are we more inclusive today? What more needs to be done? There is a long way to go. You can’t build a structure, add a ramp and say that’s accessible. You need to think about it from the start whether it’s a building or a website. Do the pictures on your website have a description that can be read on a screen reader? E-commerce is such a big part of the post-pandemic world but websites and apps are not accessible to a screen-reader user. More schools are, however, reaching out for sensitisation workshops, even from tier 2 cities, which is a good sign.

Upasana loves reading her newspaper everyday. Sundays are sacrosanct and she prefers self publishing. When she gets an idea, she is impatient and wants to implement it at the earliest. Run Saba Run was conceptualised and printed within three months. The 64-page magazine is priced at Rs 30 and printed in Braille at the NAB press in Mumbai. The Word document is converted into Braille using a software called Duxbury. You can follow White Print magazine on Instagram and their website.

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