Opening up the world of books to children with disabilities is an important pathway to making literature and society more inclusive
“The race taught Malathi something she never forgot. She could win as long as she tried. And Malathi’s dreams became bigger. She was Malathi Holla, the girl who didn’t need wings to fly.”
The true story of differentlyabled Indian athlete Malathi Holla ends on a sweet note in Wings to Fly, a lovely book published by Tulika under the Parag initiative of Tata Trusts. Supported with charming yet sensitive illustrations, the book recreates the life of a young girl and her determination to not be limited by her disability. The tone of the book is cheerful, the language unsentimental, and the depiction of disability, matter of fact.
Parag is a pan-India initiative started under the Tata Trusts in 2006 to create good quality children’s literature in Indian languages, in order to make literature more accessible, contextual, meaningful and inclusive. With titles like Wings to Fly, the Parag initiative aims to give disability a prominent place in children’s literature and help children become more sensitive to and accepting of differently-abled people.
“Hundreds of new titles are published each year for children in India, but only a handful of children’s books feature a differently-abled character in the story. And books which realistically portray disability are rare,” says Swaha Sahoo, who heads the Parag initiative at Tata Trusts. There are 26.8 million differently-abled persons in India as per the 2011 census. Yet, as Ms Sahoo explains, “the tendency to make disability invisible is one part of a complex problem; the representation of persons with disability as overly heroic is the other. In a bid to over-compensate, the characters thus created are not easy for children to identify with.”
Due to this literary bias, children with disabilities grow up not seeing relatable characters in books, and children without disabilities often have a limited understanding of the life experiences of the differently-abled. “Unless there are books that register the presence of the differently-abled around us in a sensitive but unexceptional manner, we will not realise the goal of inclusion in any substantive way,” says Ms Sahoo. “Inclusion means that all children should be able to see themselves reflected positively in pictures and stories.”
Under the Parag initiative, Tata Trusts has helped publish three books in partnership with Tulika Publications: Catch that Cat, Wings to Fly and Kanna Panna. The stories and illustrations consciously avoid stereotypes and imagery that are associated with differently-abled people. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Nancy Raj, the illustrator for the picture book Catch that Cat, recalls visiting a school in Chennai to observe the gestures, movements, expressions of children on wheelchairs so she could appropriately illustrate a child on a wheelchair. That visit led to the evolution of the character ‘Dip Dip’, the much-loved naughty protagonist of Catch that Cat.
The Tulika books have been published in nine Indian regional languages to ensure that a large number of children, especially those outside the English-speaking metros, gain access to the stories and the subtle message of inclusiveness.
Wanting to develop more books of this kind, the Parag team decided to work with Duckbill Publishers to set up a contest called Children First.
Ms Sahoo explains that the idea behind Children First was to encourage authors and illustrators to create stories featuring children with disabilities: "It is important that writers and illustrators recognise that these children are children first. They can be mischievous, stubborn, playful, happy, needy, just like any other child. We need more stories for and about these children, written and illustrated with sensitivity."
Duckbill, founded by veteran editor Sayoni Basu and children's author Anushka Ravishankar in 2012, was only too happy to engage and pitch in. They set up the contest in October 2016, giving authors a month's time to submit stories for different categories — picture books, illustrated books and chapter books.
The team was unsure about how the competition would be received, and were surprised by an overwhelming response. Hoping to get 60 participants, they ended up receiving 162 entries. Ms Basu explains, "We were extremely pleased as there was clearly a lot of engagement with the subject, a lot of enthusiasm for writing, and the quality of writing was very good."
What Duckbill looked for in a winning entry was different from the norm. Ms Ravishankar explains that, along with an engaging storyline, "the way the different abilities were dealt with" was a crucial parameter. "We were pleasantly surprised to see that most people didn't end up treating these characters as victims and 'poor things'."
Parag will support publication of the winning entries as books. Explaining why Tata Trusts was imperative to the success of the competition, Ms Ravishankar says, “Without the Tata Trusts, we would have never got the kind of exposure and the large number of entries that we received. A competition like this requires a lot of resources and time, and the Tata Trusts enabled us to achieve that. It was because of them that the competition was seen as a much wider and larger contest than just publishers trying to get books.”
While looking at the availability of leisure reading material for children, the Tata Trusts realised the need for more books that could be used comfortably by differently-abled children. In 2012, they partnered with the Karadi Cultural Alliance Trust to set up the Creative Resource Centre (CRC) in Chennai.
The CRC consists of a library for non-academic books, braille books, audio books, tactile books and toys, and famous folktales of India in audio format. Apart from being a resource centre for the visually impaired, the centre also actively works on converting books to braille, using the funds provided by Parag. Currently a pilot project, the idea is to replicate it across the state and country.
Shobha Vishwanath, managing trustee of the Karadi Cultural Alliance Trust, talks about the work: “One of the projects that we loved was creating tactile picture books for visually impaired children. Our books have the text in braille as well as print, so that the children can read by themselves, or the caregiver can help them read. We also supply tactile toys for the children.”
Under the Parag initiative, the Tata Trusts has supported the development of around 115 books in braille, 80 audio books and 12 tactile books at the CRC. Most of the books are in English and Tamil. The centre also hosts events such as storytelling sessions, workshops, support groups and theatre activities.
Ms Sahoo explains the Trusts' interest in the CRC: “An exclusion gets perpetuated through the absence of disabled-friendly access to books. Literature gives children an understanding of themselves and the world around them.” The centre is on the lookout for a new campus.
Through Parag, the Tata Trusts have also partnered with the All India Confederation of the Blind (AICB), a Delhi-based non-profit, to convert more storybooks for primary and middle school children. AICB prepared master copies in braille of 15 Hindi titles and 12 issues of Chakmak, a children’s magazine in Hindi selected because it was age-suitable. They produced 125 copies of each book for distribution to around 100 institutions for the visually impaired across the Hindi-speaking belt.
Parag is planning to tie up with more institutions, especially the government, to see how to maximise the reach of its books and reading material. The team working on the Parag initiative may not be large, but the aspirations are big. Their hope is to influence the larger discourse, and the nation at large.