The design and samples for the National Council for Educational Research and Training’s first lot of accessible textbooks are ready, but it may be a while before they reach classrooms across India. The council’s Department of Education of Groups with Special Needs has launched a hunt for printers that can mass produce these books.

Released in April, and with accessibility features for both abled and disabled children, the series of 40 books for Classes 1 and 2, represent a unique effort to make classroom learning inclusive. But the only printer their developers could find to produce the five sample sets was a family-run enterprise based in Delhi’s Kirti Nagar.

Chanakya Mudrak Private Limited is not a textbook printer. Till the NCERT project came about, their experience in producing inclusive material included a menu card for a Mumbai restaurant in 2014, and a limited edition coffee table book – with just a fraction of the features the NCERT books have – in 2015. The company had never produced a textbook, accessible or otherwise, before.

The NCERT’s next move, therefore, will be to hold national-level meetings with the State Councils of Educational Research and Training, and state bureaux of textbooks to figure out how much their empaneled network of publishers and printers can do, said Anupam Ahuja, who heads the council’s Department of Education of Groups with Special Needs.

“The publishers will also build their capacities,” said researcher Richa Shrivastava, as this need has always existed.

It may be a while before that happens though.

As AK Mittal, president of the All India Confederation of the Blind, pointed out, “In India we do not have such versatile facilities.”

The common textbook

The inclusive book series, the first such project by the National Council for Educational Research, has been two years in the making. The department reworked the decade-old Barkha series – 40 slim, single-story books used as supplementary material to help children read – to fit the principles of universal design. One book caters to all children – fully-abled as well as those with different forms of disabilities.

In 2015, through a series of workshops in which teachers, special educators and disability rights organisations participated, the team put together a long list of features that would make the original books accessible to all.

“We noted the customisation required page-wise,” said Ahuja. The team pared the massive wishlist of features the workshops generated down to “just what was essential”. There is even a digital version with sign language and audio. The final set is accessible to children with different levels of vision impairment, autism, mental retardation, mobility and hearing impairment.

There are flash-cards on the page with tactile illustrations for difficult words or where an object is illustrated in a way a blind child will not understand. (Photo credit: Richa Shrivastava).

The number of pages is the same but now there is a black border on each to help autistic children focus. Each sentence is preceded by a green dot and ends with a red one to direct their reading. Flash-cards help with difficult words. Biro-binding to hold the book together has replaced staples to prevent injury and there is “page gradation” – each successive page is shorter – to help children with conditions that impair their mobility, such as cerebral palsy, turn pages easily.

Textured illustrations

The new books scored most points on illustrations. The Barkha series is rich in them. “We insisted that all visuals be retained, and that just having outlines embossed [which is how images are typically rendered tactile for the blind] was not enough,” said Ahuja.

In a single illustration from one of the stories, Chupan Chupai, or Hide and Seek, each of the three main characters has a different tactile texture for hair. Jeet (left) has dots, Babli (middle) has diagonal stripes and Naziya (right) has vertical stripes. (Photo credit: Richa Shrivastava).

“Just a tactile version will not convey any concept to the child,” agreed Mittal. His organisation, which the NCERT consulted on this project, has a Braille press and has printed textbooks for states including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Mittal added that Braille presses unable to reproduce illustrations that aid comprehension usually replace them with lines saying: “Chitra Braille me mudrit nahin kiya hai”. The image has not been printed in Braille.

In a conventional Braille book, the dots are punched into thick paper. Illustrations are generally dropped altogether. (Photo credit: Richa Shrivastava).

In NCERT’s inclusive books, important characters and objects are rendered in higher resolution for children with low vision. For the blind, illustrations are not just tactile, but each character – which appears in multiple stories – has been given a signature texture.

“The child can follow the character they relate to from one page to the next and through books,” explained Shrivastava. “With just the Braille text, their initiation into the world of reading would be very boring.” There is a set of guidelines for teachers too.

Even illustrations of objects such as cupboards and trees have tactile textures of their own. The curtain in this one has columns of dots. (Photo credit: Richa Shrivastava).

Having decided on the features, the team at the council’s Department of Education of Groups with Special Needs sent their plan to the publication unit of the NCERT to develop a sample set. “They said they could not find anyone who can print this,” said Ahuja. “We approached NGOs, even the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. But no one could give us illustrations the way we wanted.”

Capacity-building for presses

The team was introduced to Puneet Arora, Chanakya Mudrak’s head of business development, by a Delhi-based Non-Government Organisation, in December, 2015.

“This was a big challenge because the books did not cater to one disability,” said Arora. “Page gradation looks simple but is difficult to produce because typically you would bind books and cut at one go.”

Arora helped fine-tune the design too – recommending signature textures instead of pasting hair-like material or cloth on the pages. They could also print regular text and Braille on the same page, and in the books for more advanced reading skills, dots of Braille lie over the printed text.

The advanced-level books in the series have Braille dots over the regular text. The use of transparent Poly-Braille allows sighted children to read through the dots that are also durable and do not discolour easily. (Photo credit: Puneet Arora).

“Unless we made some [accessible books], we could not share it with others,” said Ahuja, explaining why, after the workshops, her team was worried about finding a printer. “We will encourage states to put [producing such books] in their annual work plans, get the funding and make it part of the textbook bureax’s regular activities.”

Even Arora admits that it will be difficult to replicate these books on a mass scale. At current capacity, Chanakya Mudrak can print 75-100 Barkha books in a day. That capacity can be augmented, but things get more complicated with textbooks for higher classes. “You cannot change the font size of Braille text, so one page of regular text will translate into nine or 10 pages of Braille,” said Arora. “Producing these books for everyone is not feasible.” Inclusive versions are also prohibitively expensive. One Barkha book costs between Rs 800 and Rs 1,000 to make. Upscaling may be a problem.

Gradation of pages help children with impaired mobility turn pages. Each page is shorter than the previous one. (Photo credit: Richa Shrivastava)

There are nine or 10 Braille presses in the country.

“But getting output that is not just in Braille but is suitable for a variety of disabilities is a huge challenge, both in terms of production and cost,” said Mittal. Citing the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development as a source, he added that about five lakh children are enrolled in primary schools across India.

For starters, Ahuja’s team is hoping to have enough copies of these accessible textbooks to ensure a few are present in every school library. “They are also meant to serve as an indicator for teachers on what can be done for disabled children in their class,” said Shrivastava. “In a 30-year career, they are guaranteed to come across a child with special needs.”