World's first Braille atlas made in India. Source: DNA

Making maps accessible for the visually impaired is not simple and the world’s first completely mass-manufactured atlas for those deprived of sight has been produced in India. Making use of maps comes so very normally to us but for the millions of visually impaired people of the world, maps were like finding a needle in a haystack.

The Department of Science and Technology has launched an atlas ”tailor-made” for the unsighted. For the first time, visually impaired can get a sense of what India looks like.

In most blind people the physical sensation is given more prominence to compensate for the loss of vision. The way out was to make a map that could be felt rather than be looked at. The National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organization (NATMO) located in Kolkata created this unique atlas after years of struggle and hard work.

Here the map outlines are embossed on paper with the help of silk screen printing so that the blind can sense them and it is known as a Braille atlas. Narendra Modi handed over the ‘National Award for Science and Technology Intervention in Empowering the Physically Challenged’ to the director of NATMO on January 3.

Modi said, “On the lines of Corporate Social Responsibility, the concept of Scientific Social Responsibility needs to be inculcated to connect our leading institutions to all stakeholders, including schools and colleges. We must create an environment for sharing of ideas and resources.”

For people who are partially blind NATMO makes maps with accentuated colors so they can look at the maps despite their partial sight. ”The atlas has been prepared not only in English but also in Bengali, Gujarati and Telugu, there are 20 different basic maps that range from the political map of India, to the physical map of India to various soil types found in India.”

NATMO has published some 500 copies of the Braille atlas which cost them about Rs 1000 a piece and these are being handed out free to all the blind schools of India. The atlas is very heavy because of the use of high standard glazed paper and the embossing done on the paper. The next edition would be easy to carry in which light weight imported paper will be used.

”The next stage could be embed audio files in the Braille atlas and possibly make an app that speaks to the blind using the omnipresent global positioning system or GPS signals.” This remarkable effort by NATMO at least attempts to achieve one gap of a major social need with Indian science in the service of the nation.