The other day, I spent ten minutes with my eyes closed in the neighbourhood park, trying to experience the world of the blind. With few non-visual markers (other than the bush I almost stepped into) to enable me to navigate, the going was tough. Just when I was beginning to appreciate my other senses, I tripped heavily against a bench. The words of Nidhi Kaila, an IIM Calcutta alumna who runs Esha — an organisation for the blind — came back to me. “In our country where few public spaces and institutions are accessible to people with disabilities, the confidence of a blind person to step out on his own is severely eroded,” said she, adding, “this lack of infrastructure to enable the blind has always angered me!”
Nidhi always had a special empathy for the plight of the blind: “I’m a bibliophile, and can understand how terrible it must be for a person to not have access to books,” said she. She began converting school books into Braille in 1994, but soon realised that the blind in India are grappling with bigger issues — like how to become self-reliant and independent. “People’s attitudes towards the blind really annoyed me. The general consensus seemed to be that a blind person being paid a pittance should just be grateful s/he at least had a job!” said she.
That’s how Esha, a non-profit initiative to devise innovative means of sustainable livelihood for the blind, was born in January 2005. Its aim was two-fold — first, to sensitise the non-blind towards the special skills and needs of the blind, and second, to generate meaningful and reasonably well paid employment for them. “The idea was to promote accessibility as well as generate income,” said she. So Kaila developed three projects. In the first, she has trained blind professionals to conduct accessibility audits, to help corporates and educational institutions make their spaces accessible to the visually-challenged. Esha’s professionals have also developed a simple, effective four-step process to make commercial, corporate and educational spaces friendly and non-intimidating for the blind. The second project is to hold sensitisation workshops in schools, colonies and offices to make the participants more aware of their own gifts and to make them slightly more sensitive to the special needs of the differently-abled.
Esha’s flagship project is to Braille-enable pre-printed corporate visiting cards. “Giving out a Braille-enabled card,” said Kaila, “sends a clear message that you’re sensitive and inclusive without being flashy about it. Also, it says that you (and your business) are serious about a commitment to fair employment practices and inclusive communication.” The Braille-enabled cards have also caught on because they are an incredibly inexpensive way of making a social statement. Similar visiting cards in the US cost up to $77 for a set of 100 — a set of 100 cards from Esha cost under $3 or a rupee per card!
The Brailling is done using a Brailler (pretty much like a typewriter that writes in Braille). “Since we want to facilitate ‘blind entrepreneurs’ not ‘blind workers’, we give out Brailling jobs to people we’ve trained, so they can keep the profits,” said Kaila. In fact, this concept has been so well received that Esha’s blind entrepreneurs can earn between Rs 17,000-20,000 from it.
“It is an easy, yet sensitive way to make a good first impression,” said Kaila, “and an idea whose time has come in India.” Testimonials from satisfied clients on the Esha site affirm this. Jawed Habib, the noted fashion hair stylist who’s opted for Braille-enabled visiting cards, has summed it up well: “I really think everyone should get this done. Everyone.”