India’s blind readers had no lifestyle mag. So this woman made one.
Why We Wrote This
Everyone has a favorite book or two. Or three. But so much of the joy of reading comes in smaller packages; even leafing through a magazine expands your world that smidgen more. White Print was founded to share that freedom with blind readers, too.
Courtesy of Upasana Makati
Upasana Makati with White Print, the lifestyle magazine in Braille that she launched in 2013, photographed at a talk she gave in Mumbai, India.
March 1, 2021
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By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
More than 9 million people in India are blind, and tens of millions more are visually impaired. For many of them, technology has helped open new opportunities at school and at work, just as it has for people with perfect vision.
But stubborn barriers to information remain – especially when it comes to reading that’s just, well, for fun.
Since 2013, White Print has been trying to change that. It’s India’s first English-language lifestyle magazine printed in Braille, founded by a young college graduate who simply wondered one day what kind of reading-for-pleasure materials were available for blind people in India. When she realized how scant the options were, she decided to do something about it.
“As I’ve taken one step forward after the other, I realize there are deep gaps in the sector,” particularly around education, says the founder, Upasana Makati. She’s now published several children’s books, including some in Braille, that focus on inclusion and diversity.
“We need to change perceptions of people,” she says.
Usha KN, who has been a White Print subscriber from the very first issue, agrees. “The biggest challenge is people’s attitudes,” she says. “We know our strengths and capacities, but it is difficult to convince people that we can take on more responsibilities.”
Upasana Makati had always been a reader. But one night before bedtime, she had a stray thought that wouldn’t go away: What do blind people read for leisure?
She assumed there were Braille textbooks and educational materials for blind students in India. But on her own bookshelves and magazine racks, there was so much more. What about material that was simply fun and interesting?
At the time, Ms. Makati was a busy young graduate, working at a PR firm in Mumbai. But she threw herself into a whirlwind of calls and research. “I had no interaction with a visually impaired person before this, none whatsoever,” she says. “It was just a random, far-off thought and I needed to learn more about this, which is what made it interesting. It was uncharted territory for me and that kept me going.”
Google searches dug up newsletters and newspapers published by the National Association for the Blind (NAB). But when she visited NAB’s offices, they confirmed her research – no lifestyle magazines were available.
And so in 2013, Ms. Makati launched White Print. The 64-page English-language magazine is priced at Rs.30 ($0.41) and printed in Braille, at the NAB press in Mumbai – though each issue costs seven times that to produce. Complimentary copies of the inaugural issue went out with Braille newspapers, and new subscribers, starved for a fun, lively source of information, began signing up rapidly. “The feedback was immense,” says Ms. Makati. “Readers would write in saying they had finished reading the current issue and wanted to know when the next issue would be out.”
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Three months after talking to the NAB, she quit her job and began working on the project full time. “I was 22 and so convinced about this idea that I didn’t want to think otherwise,” says Ms. Makati. “I was convinced that this was important. … I had an urge to take this risk and I ran with it.”
More than 9 million people in India are blind, and tens of millions more are visually impaired. For many of them, technology has helped open new opportunities at school and at work – just as it has for people with perfect vision. But stubborn barriers to information remain, some of them rooted in stereotypes.
“Blind readers don’t avoid bookshops because they can’t read. They stay away because these stores don’t have books for them,” says Ms. Makati, who praises Trilogy in Mumbai, the one bookshop to stock White Print, which also carries many books in Braille.
Usha KN, who has an administrative job at a scientific organization in Bangalore, has been a White Print subscriber since the inaugural issue. Smartphones, screen readers, and apps like Audible or Kindle are a help, but getting information in Braille is a problem, she says, and “the biggest challenge is people’s attitudes.”
Courtesy of Upasana Makati
Students at the Amar Jyoti School in Delhi, India use Tactabet, a Braille alphabet book in English and Hindi.
“We know our strengths and capacities,” Ms. Usha adds, referring to visually impaired people, “but it is difficult to convince people that we can take on more responsibilities,” especially at work.
Learning about these types of barriers motivated Ms. Makati through the difficult first years of White Print. Determined not to lean on financial help from family or friends, she wrote much of the content herself – everything from culture and inspiring profiles to food and travel. Out of 200 emails she sent to request sponsorship and advertising, only one received a reply.
But that one reply, from the Raymond Group fabric manufacturer, led to a 5-page ad – enough to get the first issue out. She distributed it through NAB’s database in the government’s postal system, which does not charge postage for Braille publications.
“Many advertisers are clueless about Braille and don’t want to invest in something nontraditional or unusual,” she says. There are no pictures or visuals in the magazine, so innovative advertising stands out. Another of the first sponsors was Coca-Cola, whose ad played a jingle when the centerfold was opened.
“There were times when things were not going my way,” Ms. Makati says, recalling how she watched her friends move on in their careers. Even today, she hasn’t cut a salary for herself, but narrates voice-overs and audiobooks for income. “There were fleeting thoughts whether I was doing the right thing or not.”
Over time, White Print has brought in contributions from well-known writers, and the content has matured to reflect changes in India. “I’m doing a lot of environmental stories,” says Ms. Makati, who partners with a website called Eco-Spotlight. She also likes to highlight individuals helping other people, and articles on healthy lifestyles.
“They cover stories about people we might not know about, and I find the cover stories especially inspiring,” says Ms. Usha, the subscriber. “I love reading fiction. … Now with technology, books, and magazines like White Print, I feel much more positive and hopeful.”
Next up: books
In 2016, Ms. Makati was named one of Forbes India’s “30 under 30.” But it’s not recognition that drives her. It’s “the love that our work has received,” she says – and her growing awareness.
“As I’ve taken one step forward after the other, I realize there are deep gaps in the sector,” she says, particularly around education. Braille literacy in India remains very low, which prompted her to begin printing children’s books.
“Tactabet,” a Braille alphabet book in English and Hindi, pairs letters with associated words and tactile pictures. “Look Out, Look Within” is a storybook about inclusion, inspired by how rarely children with disabilities feel accepted in public places like parks, malls, or bookstores. Braille versions of the book were distributed free to more than 100 schools, and a sign language version is available on YouTube. The book “celebrates” differences, Ms. Makati says, noting that she doesn’t like the word “normalizes.” “Flowers for Sunaina,” an e-book on inclusion and diversity, was released in 2020, and Ms. Makati will become an author with “Run Saba Run,” a forthcoming book about blind runners.
Even though technology has opened doors, there’s nothing like an actual book, Ms. Usha agrees. “We remember what we read in Braille,” she says. “The younger generation especially is so dependent on audio books and apps that they don’t even know spellings of words.” Ms. Makati recalls one White Print reader who used to listen to a lot of audio, but struggled to spell, and had trouble finding a job. Today, he subscribes to strengthen his spelling.
For now, Ms. Makati’s main challenge is still finances. “Right now, it’s only about survival,” she says. She needs around $5,000 per year to meet her printing costs. Before the pandemic, White Print had 400 subscribers, many of them corporations, schools, and libraries. But today, as COVID-19’s economic toll continues, that is down to 150.
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But Ms. Makati remains adamant that Braille materials be affordable and accessible. “It’s a vicious circle. Most of us assume that because this is a digital India, most people have access to technology, but it’s not true. We actually forget the population that doesn’t have it – the ones who are only dependent on books,” she explains.
And the big picture, she emphasizes, is bigger than technology. Above all, “we need to change perceptions of people.”
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