Nidhi Arora believes that books and knowledge should be available for everyone to access – be they visually impaired people or those who cannot read. She started an online audio library and is now taking it door to door, teaching people how to use it.
In a school for visually impaired children in Gurugram, over 30 kids are sitting around a table that has a set of speakers placed on it. They are all concentrating hard on following a story from the captivating Akbar-Birbal tales, narrated in Hindi on an audio book. Watch closely and their expressions change as the story is played – there is laughter, concern, anticipation, curiosity, and so much more. But most of all, there is the unparalleled happiness of listening to a story they love.
This amazing session was made possible by CLABIL (Central Library of Audio Books in Indian Languages), a project started with the aim of making audio books available to the visually impaired and also to people who cannot read.
A Gurugram-based NGO named Esha – People for the Blind, has made the entire CLABIL content available online and it can be downloaded by anyone. “We usually equate literacy with education and that, according to me, is not right. It is unfortunate that a person needs to be literate to access many of the knowledge resources available today, and also that most of them are in English. That is why I started CLABIL to make knowledge available to every citizen of India – especially the population that does not speak English, has very slow internet connection, is not literate or English literate, etc.,” says Nidhi Arora, who started Esha in January 2005, and then came up with CLABIL in 2010.
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“I have been working in this field since 1994. I was very passionate about making Braille books and started with that. Then in 2005, I started Esha as a separate initiative for the production of Braille enabled visiting cards,” says the 39-year-old.
CLABIL is both web and app based. Users can access the library with the help of an app named Suno, and also on the browsers of their smartphones, tablets or desktops.
Today, the online library has 5,014 files in 15 languages – including Hindi, Oriya, Bengali, Punjabi, and English. Currently, the app is limited to Hindi files only. Suno allows users to download and store the audiobooks on their phones or tablets. They can start listening within seconds of starting the downloads and don’t need to wait for them to finish. Once the books have been downloaded, they can listen to them even without internet connections. The content is either literature or knowledge-based, and is curated by Nidhi. Some of the recordings include works by Premchand, Kabir and folk stories from different parts of India. The Oriya academic content has quizzes in English and stories in Bengali too. CLABIL does not have any adult or entertainment-related content.
Nidhi has a large volunteer base across the country – people who are happy to contribute and help her with the recordings. She recently conducted the Esha summer project, inviting volunteers, especially students, to utilize their vacation time and record stories while sitting in the comfort of their homes.
Esha also organizes read fests in schools and offices, asking people to spend some time recording books.
“It was great when one of my friends informed me that her daughter was very excited to learn her reading would be enjoyed by many people across the country and help them learn as well. She was personally motivated to record a story,” says Nidhi.
Esha has also started a CLABIL outreach programme to take the library directly to the beneficiaries. As a part of this, interns and volunteers go to different places in rural India, underprivileged urban areas, blind schools, etc., to inform users that this resource is available and can be used by anyone.
Through this program, Esha has reached 1,200 people this year, and the members target reaching 10,000 people. “When we go to our beneficiaries, we don’t just introduce them to the technology and walk away. We hand-hold them throughout the process with three to five visits. We slowly teach people how to gain access to the content with just a few clicks and we take their feedback too,” says Nidhi.
Other than the library, Esha works on two more verticals:
• Employment: The NGO takes orders for Braille enabled visiting cards from organizations and individuals. These are standard visiting cards with the name of the person embossed in Braille, and are made by blind professionals. Whatever money Esha makes through these cards, is sent directly to the professionals.
• General public sensitizing: Under this vertical, Esha sensitizes the general public towards the needs of the disabled. “In these sessions, I find that people are not insensitive but they don’t know how to be inclusive. We help them understand disabilities better with the help of open Braille sessions, blind walks, etc.,” says Nidhi.
After graduating from IIM Kolkata in 2001, Nidhi worked in the corporate sector before quitting in December 2015 to focus more on CLABIL. The volunteers in her team have parallel corporate careers.
While she used to put in all the required funds from her own pocket initially, she received some corporate funding this year to take the outreach work ahead.
“Esha made me financially independent. My family of four has three visually disabled people and my father is no more. With money from Esha, I was able to get my sister married and also earn enough to make a house for my family. I financed my own marriage with the money I earned through Esha as well,” says K N Chandrasekar, who makes Braille cards for Esha
“Other than Chandrasekar, the story of my domestic help always stays with me. She is not literate, but she has put her daughter in school and wants her to study. One day she told me that she wants to teach her daughter. I installed all the CLABIL content in the SD card of her phone and asked her to listen to it. The power of an illiterate parent to teach her daughter shook me from the core, and I was deeply touched. It is stories like these that motivate me to move forward,” concludes Nidhi.