Will truth prevail?

Pramod Dev (name changed) a visually impaired (VI) 45-year-old man from Pune is fighting an almost forgotten legal tussle. The battle he did not have the confidence to take up before, the battle he thought he would give up. Now with the assistance of Eyeway, Pramod has started a fresh case against the BSNL telephone operators for the fraudulence he was victimized to, more than 15 years ago.

In 1983, when he started a PCO (Public Call Office) in Pune at a time when technology was not as available and abundant like it is now, it was his only livelihood. It was a way to survive in a society that highly marginalized the disabled. PCOs were a market in itself where many people relied on a living and also the government provided it as a welfare measure to the poor. Pramod took two BSNL numbers/connections for his PCO. It was a time when making a telephone call was rare and cumbersome, thus this business had significant demand. But Pramod never anticipated that in a few years he would be tricked by some corrupt officials of BSNL to pay unwarranted telephone bills.

Assuming his disability as an opportunity to cheat, the corrupt officials withheld the bill of payments for one of his numbers/connections over many months and gradually manipulated it. When he enquired at the time on this situation of issuing no ‘bill of costs’, he was made to believe that everything was normal. He waited and tried to clarify from the BSNL office but to no avail.  Finally, when the bill was issued it turned up an exorbitant amount of Rs. 50,000 which he knew was the result of some malpractice. Hardly could he challenge this situation at that time, except to entreat the officers to show some sympathy. His attempts to convey his side of the story fell on deaf ears. Managers and officials forced him to pay the costs soon to avoid any legal consequences. On deeper inquiry, he understood that he was cheated by incorporating the costs incurred to another BSNL client who was issued the same connection as his. But he was incapacitated economically and socially to bring the culprits to light and get justice.

On the advice of a senior manager in BSNL, Pramod agreed to bear the costs and pay the amount in installments of Rs. 850 per month. And by 2004 he settled the entire amount with a lot of struggle. The thought of his honesty being tainted and denied any opportunity to fight for justice weakened him morally. Pramod knocked on many doors for support but many of the responses didn’t convince him. Neither police nor lawyers helped, not taking him seriously because he was blind and poor. But he maintained his communication with the Pune Blind Men Association (PBMA), Lion’s Club, Pune, Bank of Maharashtra, Pune and Pune Municipal Corporation, who supported him financially and morally at different stages. Though these institutions encouraged him to challenge BSNL legally, he lacked the confidence and the financial means. At the same time, he was also pressured not to take up any legal routes against BSNL from different corners. He was scared of fighting a government authority, unsure of the security for his wife and three children.

But surprisingly, in 2018 on hearing the Eyeway radio promos and the list of services Eyeway provides, Pramod contacted our helpline. He shared his ordeal and the Eyeway counselor encouraged him to take up the case against BSNL. Eyeway counselor instilled in Pramod the confidence to fight the legal battle. He was also informed of the possibilities of fighting the case and his case becoming a precedent for averting similar exploitations in the future for other visually impaired people. Pramod was connected to Eyeway partner Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), wherefrom he was provided more legal inputs. But engaging a lawyer meant shelling money from his pocket at a time where his household is entirely dependent on his wife’s income from the tea stall she runs.

But now being emotionally empowered and legally informed after the intervention by Eyeway, he has forwarded his case to the Human Rights department of Pune with the backing of Pune Blind Men’s Association (PBMA). This is one among the many cases where the vulnerability of a visually impaired individual is exploited by different authorities. With Eyeway handling a large number of similar cases of exploitation of visually impaired people, this is an issue of import.  Visually impaired people are still treated as ‘outsiders’ at workplaces, in education, for accessibility etc. which all culminate in cases of unjustifiable discrimination. Pramod’s case is worse than that.

Eyeway will lend all available assistance to Pramod Dev so that his case will obtain the deserving attention and justice is served.

Paving the road to a secure destination

Ravi from Harugeri village, Karnataka is now 25 years old, a decade and a half since he last went to school. He was born visually impaired (VI), like his elder sister, the eldest brother being the only sighted among the siblings. Born into a financially weak family, to illiterate parents dependent on manual labor for a living, life was full of struggles for the siblings.

He and his sister who are visually impaired suffered the most. For the parents having no knowledge about living life with blindness, the two blind children were a liability. The sighted brother and the VI sister were not given any education. His sister helped the mother in domestic work and the sighted brother spent his days aimlessly. On the advice of a family relative, young Ravi was put in a nearby village school. By the time Ravi was in 5th standard, both father and mother died from health-related ailments. With that, his education also stopped.
His elder brother took responsibility, though not whole-heartedly to look after the siblings and provide for them. He started a small shop, which became the only source of income for the family. While the elder brother ran the shop, his sister took care of the household chores like cooking, cleaning etc. and Ravi sat at home helpless. His brother was harsh towards the blind siblings due to his own lack of awareness. Ravi regretted not going to school, he wanted to cut his dependency on his siblings, he wanted to be employed, and he wanted his sister to be empowered. He always felt there is a dignified way to live his life but never knew how to achieve it.
After few years at home, he joined a local NGO and learned some basic skills like reading, Braille etc. though he didn’t get any proper guidance for the future. After those few months, he again became idle and lonely. He always thought about going back to school but didn’t know how. One of his friends in the village told him about ‘Namma Vaani’ a social media platform for persons with disabilities. From ‘Namma Vaani’ platform, he got to know to about Eyeway Helpdesk and immediately connected with our helpline counselor in April 2018. He was curious and nervous. He precisely wanted to know about opportunities to restart his education. He also shared his concerns and regrets with the counselor.

Eyeway counselor conveyed to him that education is possible, and with hard work and a strong will he could put all his struggles to rest. As a first step, the counselor asked him to finish his class 10th exams through open schooling. For that, he was put in touch with a local NGO called Jagruti Trust which could help him to enroll in open school. He was also informed about the rehabilitation programs and computer training available at Enable India, Bangalore. He was informed about the dignified life possible for visually impaired individuals through education, employment, training and rehabilitation which could all be acquired gradually. Eyeway counselor also asked Ravi to inspire his sister who is now 30 years old and has never been to school, to make use of the opportunities available for visually impaired in India.

Ravi is now happy and confident, he is preparing to restart his education and the thought itself fills him with hope.

Planting optimism to reap success

Born into a seven-member family, Amit Tyagi from Hapur, Uttar Pradesh had a difficult time growing up. Initially, it was out of poverty, his parents who were manual laborers struggled to provide for the five children. He is the eldest among the siblings, ambitious and determined to make the best of his opportunities. Though the parents were poor and illiterate, they sent all the five children to the nearby village school. But it was for the eldest Amit, expected to take up the responsibility of the family on his shoulders, who had to face a major challenge in life – ‘late blindness’.

He started losing vision late in 2010 when he was pursuing his 12th standard. He was detected with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) the same year by doctors at AIIMS. With that, his education halted. Soon after his vision impairment was detected, he began undergoing treatment in AIIMS, New Delhi trying to regain his vision. But in 2016, after six years of relentless treatment, the doctors declared that his vision was irreversible. This left him in shock; it was a moment that shattered all his dreams – to get educated, to earn a livelihood, to provide for his parents and siblings, to save his family from poverty and a lot more. After he realized that his eyesight couldn’t be restored, he resigned to a state devoid of hope and awareness about the future. This mental state led him to spend the next two years idle, confined indoors. After he happened to hear the Eyeway promos on the radio, he contacted our Helpdesk in April 2018. He was in a muddled state of mind, not knowing where to begin his conversation. Now at 27 years of age and having no experience of the world outside for almost a decade after his 12th standard, he had absolutely no knowledge of living a life with blindness. He asked a flurry of questions on how to live ahead, on pursuing education, gaining employment, accessibility, opportunities he can avail etc. Having the experience of handling many clients who have contracted late blindness, our counselor suggested Amit to begin with rehabilitation programmes and after that technology-related training like computer, screen readers and other software. The counselor also suggested some institutions like National Association for the Blind (NAB), Faridabad, Blind Relief Association, New Delhi etc. where he could avail all these training facilities.

Eyeway gets many clients who turn blind late in their lives and who can’t handle this immediate change it brings. Some plummet into depression, some lose hope and some remain misinformed for the rest of their lives. In such cases, the most significant step taken by Eyeway is to inspire confidence and provide them with the diverse opportunities available to them. Sometimes this approach brings immediate changes and at times, it stalls. But the kernel of the idea remains the same: Living a dignified and independent life with blindness is possible.

On follow-up, Amit Tyagi sounded positive and he would be joining National Association for the Blind, Faridabad for rehabilitation training in May.

Lending unflinching support

19-year-old Mukesh Singh (name changed) from Champawat, Uttarakhand is yet another visually impaired individual who was denied his right to education by unaware authorities. Visually impaired people being denied the opportunity to pursue education, to write exams, to avail scribe facility etc. is one area that still needs large-scale advocacy.

Born with visual impairment and gradually losing vision, Mukesh studied in a mainstream school till 8th standard in Champawat. His father, a Postman and his mother a farmer, encouraged him to study, though they were disturbed by Mukesh’s gradual loss of vision. But he was forced to halt his education due to total vision loss in 2013 when he was just 14 years old, having no clue about how to tackle this change. Being the only child his parents started panicking too. For the next; 3 to 4 years they sought treatment in many hospitals, spending a lot of money borrowed from friends and family. In the end, they had to make peace with the fact that their son’s vision could not be restored. This left the entire family in disbelief.

Mustering a lot of courage and heeding to the advice of many doctors they met, his parents instilled confidence in Mukesh. They prepared him to face any challenges ahead. For this, they decided to educate Mukesh, now 19 years old, because they believed it had the potential to change his life. But the problem arose when Mukesh applied for admission into his 10th standard through National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), Uttarakhand. He was denied admission in the NIOS center and suggested another center in Nainital much far away from his village.

Mukesh had learned about Eyeway from one of our older beneficiaries, Govind Singh. And so he decided to get in touch with the counselor seeking help to his problem with NIOS. Mukesh informed the counselor about his situation. Having frequently dealt with education-related issues of visually impaired, our counselor directly contacted the NIOS in Uttarakhand and intimated the legal provisions to allow enrolment to visually impaired individuals in education. This conversation made a significant difference and the authorities at NIOS allowed Mukesh’s admission once they were made aware of the rules.

Such issues of being denied equal opportunities in education are faced by visually impaired students across the country. This is still a grave issue considering the progress our country has made under the Education Act and policies. Inclusion is the key word in all these legal documents but it is casually overlooked in implementation.
On follow-up, Mukesh has been enrolled in NIOS, Uttarakhand and he will restart his education shortly. Our counselor also informed him about online libraries and physical libraries in NAB, R.K Puram and the NIOS library for further academic assistance.

Clearing the dark clouds of negativity

Ranaram, a 27 year old visually impaired hailing from Barmer, Rajasthan contacted Eyeway in 2018. While his ‘past’ inspired Eyeway, his ‘present’ seemed in contradiction to it. He comes from a six-member family but with meager finances. His father and four other brothers lived by daily labor. His father and the eldest brother died few years before but the rest of the family continued doing daily labor for a living. He is the only one in the family who has gone to school though not regularly or at the traditional age. None of these reasons have been a challenge; instead, they have only made a positive impact.

His visual impairment was a challenge to start schooling at a young age. But only after joining school he realized the integral role it would play in his life which also changed his attitude towards living with blindness. He initially studied in a blind school till 8th standard nearby his village. He never faced any difficulties except a self-doubt whether he and the other visually impaired children belonged to a special school.  Being very conscious of the value of equality, it made him think very early in his life about an inclusive society. His friends were big influencers in his life, most of them sighted, whose conversations, activities, hobbies etc. made him aspire to integrate into their mainstream lives. After 8th standard, encouraged by friends coupled with his own drive, he moved to a mainstream school in Jaisalmer where he studied for the remaining four years and completed his 12th standard.

For such a brave individual, it appeared as a surprise to the Eyeway counselor that he was sitting idle at home since 2013 after finishing school. Except for rehabilitation training in National Association for the Blind (NAB), Mumbai for a period of three and a half months in 2016, he was confined indoors for five years. He seemed reluctant to give a concrete answer as to how and why he came to this present situation, but surely he appeared to be in need of help. He said the mainstream school did not guide him, neither did NAB Mumbai. And when asked about his friends, the response was in the negative too. He kept retracting his statements and contradicting himself.

Instead of going by the ‘past’ which was self-contradictory, Eyeway counselor found a fix in Ranaram’s confusing ‘present’, that of five idle years indoors, the absence of any guidance, friends turning strangers among other domestic problems of his. Eyeway tried to become his friend, guide, and support to help him overcome all problems. He asked for institutions to get computer training so that he could find a job soon enough in Mumbai or Gujarat. Eyeway suggested Blind People’s Association (BPA), Ahmedabad and a few computer training centers in Mumbai. Again his reason to travel from Rajasthan to either Mumbai or Gujarat was to be with friends. Though his reasons and excuses were not convincing, the best effort was lent to resolve Ranaram’s issue.

On follow-up, the counselor understood that Ranaram chose BPA over other computer training centers because the training is free of cost. At BPA he has presently enrolled for a course in physiotherapy.

Confidence is inevitable

18-year-old Shreya (name changed) hails from a small town called Kalady in Ernakulam district, Kerala. They are a small family of four, struggling financially. They live by the fishing job of her father and the daily-wage labor of her mother. Shreya and her brother are visually impaired since birth. Shreya suffers from a condition called Nystagmus which is an involuntary movement of the eyes that causes loss of vision and depth perception.

Neither the low income, physical impairment of the children or the absence of essentials in the house have deterred her parents or Shreya to lose hope. Both the children are pursuing education and Shreya is an excellent student, topping in most of her exams in school. Her brother who is also visually impaired is pursuing higher education after finishing school. Shreya was referred to Eyeway by the doctors of Little Flower Hospital, Angamaly. When she approached Eyeway in April 2018, she was awaiting her class 12 exam results. She was very confident of successful results, thus she wanted to know how she can achieve her ambition of becoming a teacher while battling the gradual vision loss. She has lost about 40% of her vision so far and it’s slowly deteriorating further. She wants to make the best of her remaining eye-sight and wants to achieve success in life.

She is a very ambitious and she has a specific timeline in her mind to reach her goals, which she shared with the counselor. She was expecting the counselor to give her a career plan where she can manage a job in the teaching profession within the next five or six years. After discussing with Shreya the multiple opportunities available and the diverse ways to achieve it, the counselor helped her understand how to work towards achieving her dream career. The counselor informed her about choosing a subject for specialization, an area of interest, preparing for entrance exams, various colleges offering different courses, employment-related exams, and various internet domains to gather timely information from. He also shared with Shreya the need to learn computer and various assistive technologies for the future.

Shreya was looking for some assurance that her losing eyesight won’t come in the middle of her determination to succeed. The fact that Shreya never gave up on her dreams even in the midst of all adversities is commendable. When many give up in the face of such challenges, Shreya exemplifies courage as a visually impaired teenager. This open-mindedness also helped the counselor to successfully instill confidence in her. She awaits the beginning of a bright future while she waits for her higher secondary exam results.

Leading towards possibilities

Pankaj Kumar, a 19-year-old man from Bihar was born blind. He remained uneducated till 18 years; he sat idle at home not knowing how to live a life with blindness. Also, being born into a well-to-do family, he was ably supported and cared for by his parents and two siblings.

He never felt the need to be independent or gaining education till he heard the Eyeway radio promos for the first time in 2016. He contacted the Helpdesk in the same year and has been in constant communication with the counselor since then. Our counselor used this opportunity to mentally uplift Pankaj and also make his family aware of the education and rehabilitation opportunities for the visually impaired. The counselor suggested various training programs consistently but the family was reluctant to send him away from home. They cited many reasons in defense like Pankaj is physically weak, contracts illnesses fast, cannot adapt to unknown and new environments etc. Basically, the hovering concern of his parents kept him home for long making him an introvert.

Eyeway counselor seeing the need for changing the mindset of the family worked closely with them. They were made to understand that it will work against Pankaj if he were made to live a life confined to the house. Finally, through repeated counseling they agreed to enrol Pankaj in an NGO called Shubam in Bihar where he will pursue training in basic mobility skills, Braille script etc. for a period of three months.

Confidence is key

Veena (name changed), a 15 years old girl from Cochin, Kerala contacted Eyeway the day before her 10th Board exams. She is suffering from Bilateral Macular Scar which is gradually deteriorating her vision. Her visual impairment is more than 40% but still, she doesn’t possess a disability certificate. She hails from a low-income family where her father works as a “help” in a shop and her mother is unemployed.

She was directed to the Eyeway Helpdesk by the Little Flower Hospital, Angamaly, Kerala. She contacted Eyeway in the apprehension of failing in her exams because of her diminishing vision. She was worried of invigilators not cooperating with her condition in the exam hall. She was specifically nervous about her computer practical exam.

She was worried since she was not used to the computer keyboard. She is currently using a magnifying glass for better vision. Being a day before the exam there wasn’t much which the counsellor could help in terms resolving her immediate fears. But counsellor instilled confidence in her and also made her parents aware of the possibilities to live a dignified life with blindness. Veena nurtures the ambition to become a doctor and the Eyeway counsellor shared with her stories of successful visually impaired people. Counselor also gave her a basic idea about assistive technologies and assured to support her in the future.