His head tilted sideways, Vivekananda runs his nimble fingers over the embossed dots inside a white, softcover publication. Carefully balancing the volume on his lap, the 28-year-old traces and retraces the lines of text. His eyes appear to be fixed on the wall in front of him, and a soft chuckle escapes his mouth; it's a sign of recognition.
The story he's reading is a profile of a visually disabled boy, who, like Vivekananda himself, comes from a small Indian village. Its subject, Srikanth Bolla, became the first international blind student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; later, he became the chief executive officer of a company that produces eco-friendly paper products and aims to provide employment for millions of differently abled people.
The story reminds Vivekananda of his own path after being born blind and raised in rural Karnataka, near Bangalore. As a child, Vivekananda didn't even know if he would make it to college; now, he's a post-graduate in sociology, dreaming of improving the education facilities in his hometown.
Equally remarkable is how he is reading the story: In the Braille Room of Bangalore's Sri Rakum School for the Blind, Vivekananda is flipping through White Print, India's first and only English-language lifestyle magazine in Braille, published every month in Mumbai. Its niche and occasionally frothy culture stories serve a readership that, until now, didn't have access to the basic lifestyle options most expect from magazines: articles about inspiring figures, manicures, and fashion trends.
Braille is a ubiquitous reading medium for blind children in India, which is home to the world's largest blind population. Most non-sighted Indian children attend specialized blind schools that mandate learning in Braille. Low smartphone and Internet penetration restricts the use of assistive technology.
Despite the sizable potential demand, niche magazines for Braille readers largely do not exist in the country. None of India's major magazines are transcribed for its blind population either—unlike, say, in the United States, where Braille versions of National Geographic and Playboy are available.
Upasana Makati, White Print's editor, writer, and publisher, launched the magazine in 2013. Her 60-page monthly magazine publishes inspirational stories, first-person accounts, short fiction, and reporting about food, technology, music, and art. Articles are written by Makati—who is seeing, and uses software and a proofreader to translate to Braille—and a handful of volunteer contributors. She now has 350 subscribers, comprising individuals as well as institutions, like schools and hospitals.
Braille readers like Vivekananda have long had to depend on physical and online libraries like Bookshare and Sugamya Pustakalaya, as no bookstores in India stock Braille material. These libraries, however, do not have the same diversity of titles as those for the sighted.
"Less than 1 percent of the total printed material is available in any accessible format in India, and that includes Braille," says Homiyar Mobedji, country director and disability head for Benetech, Bookshare's parent company.
For Vivekananda, access to a spectrum of Braille literature was scarce during his childhood. He attended an inclusive school and learned Braille in the evenings, but apart from his textbooks, he had little to read to entertain himself. "There were hardly any storybooks available in Braille," he says.
Enrolling at Sri Rakum 11 years ago offered Vivekananda a small library, but it was primarily stocked with classics and biographies of icons like Louis Braille and Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, Vivekananda says he wishes that White Print were published weekly or fortnightly. Makati says this kind of positive feedback drives her to keep providing her readers with the best reading material her small team can provide: She cites one reader, who transcribes every issue into Tamil-language Braille for his friend, who cannot read English. "That's the kind of dedication my readers have," she says.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.