For three-and-a-half-year-old Aadi (name changed) with cerebral palsy, a good book – Thottu Paru Poochi – was all it took to direct his boisterous energy into reading. Despite it being the first book he was ever introduced to, Aadi engaged with it immediately, and after a few readings, he was turning the pages independently on his screen reader and attempting to vocalize the sounds. Reading tends to have that effect – simultaneously teaching and entertaining, giving delight, enticing the reader to persist, to explore and experiment.
The birth of ARM
For many like Aadi, accessible libraries are the only gateway to the joys of reading. The Chetana Library, with its array of diverse tactile and picture books, was widely enjoyed by children with print disabilities. But the lockdown of March 2020 put an abrupt end to this experience.
However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it triggered the creation of the incredibly innovative Accessible Reading Materials (ARM) Online library. With the lockdown, and education itself shifted to a primarily online sphere, the ARM library couldn’t have come at a better time.
The pandemic has brought about an entirely new social scenario, one which children are being exposed to for the first time, leaving them with more questions, insecurities and fears. A mountain grew from the erstwhile molehill; a simple cough and cold became a reason for great worry. Namita Jacob, the Director of Chetana Charitable Trust recalls a worried sibling calling about her brother with intellectual impairment, seeking ideas that might help control his anxiety. From the advice she gave her, the idea for the story I Am Sick blossomed.
Teresa Antony, Illustrator and Coordinator of Library Services at Chetana Trust, created low vision-friendly illustrations to accompany the story written by Namita. It was completed, recorded and shared online on the Chetana website with simple tips to aid teachers and parents. “The quick outpouring of responses from teachers and parents all over the country amazed us. Could online books really be a way to reach out to children with disabilities during the pandemic?” pondered Namita.
A truly unique library
Now containing over 30 books and counting, in five languages including Indian Sign Language (ISL), Chetana Accessible Reading Materials (ARM) Online library has emerged as a one-stop destination for reading resources and activities for children.
The resources themselves were inspired by the difficulties children face in daily life.
For instance, Bo, Messy and Shampoo follows the story of Messy who doesn’t want to shampoo her hair, and her big brother Bo who guides her through it. Created by a large volunteer base responsive to the requests and needs of families and children, the stories appeal to the ethos and sensibilities of diverse groups of children. The witty, amusing books are accompanied by ideas for fun activities and discussions which allow caregivers to utilize the storylines and characters and carry important conversations and lessons beyond the text. Another innovative collection is the Imagine Curriculum books which teach early learners the Braille alphabet through hilarious stories.
Low vision-friendly images that bring the stories to life provides additional support to children with print disabilities, helping them engage with the story. The large text size, well spaced-out and highlighted also helps. The read-aloud feature is another important feature of the ARM library. When the volume is kept to a minimum, it even gives that little extra support to children hesitant to read alone. It aids children learning to read in a language the parents are not fluent in. Sometimes deaf children are born to hearing parents or vice versa – the ISL with voiced texts assists in such cases too, exposing children to both languages as they grow.
The easily downloadable Braille file makes the books immediately accessible as a hard copy for those with access to Braille printers. Otherwise, a simple pdf can be downloaded and made into a tactile book with ease, using just Fevicol, glitter fabric paint and the instructions included in the website. The stories can be downloaded and accessed through the Bloom Reader app available in the Play Store on all Android devices. This means that children using screen readers or other assistive devices can access these stories themselves any time they want and read at their own pace. It offers a realistic reading experience, complete with page turns, helping children stay active and focussed as they read online.
Impact on children
Sudha Ramamoorthy, a special educator who works with children, especially those with neurodevelopmental disabilities, often makes use of the ARM library. She says that using the library has helped children with movement-related impairments learn to turn pages on their screen readers themselves and read at their own pace.
The highlighted feature, which moves across the text, synchronised with the read-aloud feature helps children with motor impairment keep their eyes focussed on the right words being read out. This aids in word recognition and helps younger readers get used to the activity of reading, from left to right. These additional features of the ARM library ensure that there is a way for all children to relish the wonderful stories.
“Developing listening skills may be essential for a child with cerebral palsy or a visual impairment, but is a great skill to give to all children. So by designing with children with specific learning needs in mind, we find we have created a resource valued by all,” says Namita.
The stories teach without sounding sanctimonious and are vibrantly entertaining. The story Ready For School narrates the process of a child getting ready for school on his own in quirky rhyming sentences. While amusing young readers and encouraging them to read further, the story also gently teaches a lesson in handling daily activities independently and confidently. The carefully crafted ‘predictability’ of the stories allows children to advance easily in their reading, improving their confidence to read by themselves.
A learning experience
“Reading is not only about enjoying the stories; it is a holistic learning process. While activities like listening to music are great for children, they are passive, unlike the very active, engaging process of reading. Witnessing children and parents taking such an interest in the online library, and seeing first hand the difference it makes for the children is such a wonderful thing.” says Sudha.
Through reading, concepts are transferred, vocabulary built and children begin asking questions and exploring new words on their own. For instance, according to Sudha, after reading Thottu Paru Poochi, Aadi started noticing insects around him, pointing out how they looked different from the ‘Poochi’ or the insect in the book, and began asking what each one was called. Children become familiar with the whole idea of reading and learn and develop core skills that will enable learning throughout their lives.
During the pandemic, more often than not, parents have resorted to allowing their children to stay glued to their screens, so that they could cope with the multitude of additional responsibilities that come with being confined indoors. While typically, the ‘isolating’ tendency of the pandemic is emphasised, this initiative by the Chetana Trust has proven that a positive spirit and vigour can make anything possible.
While the Chetana physical library with its enormous range of tactile books was fantastic in its way, the ARM Online library has allowed Chetana to reach out to hundreds of children all over the world, offering a realm of solace and adventure to briefly escape the turbulence of reality.