How scented beading jewelry is bringing dignity to visually impaired Indians
One out of every three blind people in the world lives in India. With a population of over one billion, the country is believed to have around 15 million fully blind and 52 million visually impaired individuals. Around 80 per cent of these cases are from preventable reasons such as cataracts and malnutrition, but there are insufficient treatment centers and lack of awareness about the problem. For underprivileged, the impact of blindness can be extremely serious: the social stigma attached to blindness can mean that those who are visually impaired struggle to find employment, and those that do usually end up in poorly paid unskilled jobs.
It was trying to address this situation that students from the Indian National Institute of Design and the Royal College of Art created the project ‘Made in the Dark’, an initiative to produce jewelry made by blind craftswomen using ‘scent-beading’ – a new craft designed to enhance their skills. Based in the city of Ahmedabad, Khushbu Dublish, Deepen Toppo, Ruby Steel, Hal Watts and Jon Fraser saw an opportunity to utilize these untapped skills. The goal was to create unique and desirable objects that could provide income for blind craftspeople and improve their social standing.
The design team wanted to leverage existing craft skills, but giving the artisans a lead, creating a new form of art. They created a new language and a relationship between color and scents that matches the tone of a specific gem with a particular scent. With this, the blind craftsmen can design aesthetics and fragrances of the jewelry they create. The result is a series of handmade designs that communicate visually and with a mix of smooth and traditional aromas, that are typically Indian.
Working with handicrafts in general contributes to a sense of well-being and dignity for the blind. Besides developing a sense of touch widely used by visually impaired, it is an excellent tool to raise self-esteem and recover the meaning of social belonging. Made in the dark partnered with the Blind People’s Association and the Andh Kanya School: organizations which provide education to blind children and teach craft skills to blind people of all ages from across the state of Gujarat.
“The most important stakeholders in the project were the blind people themselves. However, in order for scent-beading to be established we had to design an enterprise system which was efficient for retailers, materials suppliers, and the consumer. We also considered the desires of our target consumers – the rapidly growing Indian middle classes”, says Jon. The team noted the growing popularity of ethical Indian retailers and developed the Made in the Dark brand to suit this, by letting it tell the unique story behind scent-beaded jewelry.
Made in the Dark won the Core 77 Design Awards – category Design for Social Impact – in 2011. “The one area in which we wish we could have done things differently was in exploring the potential of applying our color-scent language to other crafts. We met blind people skilled in textiles, weaving, carpentry and even painting, so these could be exciting areas for the process. We put aside these experimental ideas and chose scent-beading as it was a craft that could provide an immediate benefit for the blind community”, adds Jon.
The brand communicates the story behind scent-beading and informs customers about the problem of avoidable blindness in India. The packaging explains simple measures for eye protection “We have three primary goals: provide a sustainable and rewarding income for blind craftspeople, improve the social standing of blind people in India and generate public awareness of the problem of preventable blindness. Together, the new craft scent-beading and the Made in the Dark brand are of great value to the blind community and to the health awareness of Indian society as a whole”.