In conversation with George Abraham on ‘inclusive education’

George Abraham – blind visionary, belter of boundaries and veteran of the impossible.

Just recently, the Supreme Court of India in the ongoing case of Rajneesh Kumar Pandey v. Union of India, made an observation: “It is impossible to think that the children who are disabled or suffer from any kind of disability or who are mentally challenged can be included in the mainstream schools for getting an education.” In an effort towards unwrapping stories of successes of the mainstream education system, here’s a conversation with one of the glowing examples of mainstreaming.

Retention of information or with sufficient reason

Banking Ombudsman Scheme, 2006 (Amended 2017) in its Chapter 4 (8-Grounds of Complaint) (r) states “forced closure of deposit accounts without due notice or without sufficient reason” as a circumstance for redressal of grievance. Vikram Joshi (name changed) turned blind when he was 3 years old as a reaction to a medication he was taking. But his ambitions and hard work never stopped him from taking the less trodden path to success in life. He did his Post-Graduation from Ferguson College, Mumbai in the English Language. Though he tried for public sector jobs he was unsuccessful in finding one. Thus, he mobilized his self-belief and confidence to start a self-employment venture. He had a Savings Account in Axis Bank where he applied for a bank loan to start a self-employed venture. This was when he got to know he was in a difficult situation with his savings bank account frozen and monetary excesses accrued by exceeding his credit card limit. The Bank took freezing of his Savings Account as a corrective measure to this circumstance and this information was retained for a period of three months between his account freeze and Vikram seeking a bank loan.

There is a clear retention of information in this case by the bank but will that serve as a sufficient reason in closing his account is a question to moot but doing it without notice is not justifying the act. Vikram’s requests for allocating some time to pay back the excess sum has been responded to rudely and his loan application was put on hold till he paid back the excess sum. His account was held frozen till the aforesaid condition was met by Vikram. This was when Vikram contacted Eyeway.

Eyeway Counselor shared the RBI and IBA circulars which explain resolutions for such circumstances. We also shared with him the contact of Rajesh Asudani, RBI Nagpur Office who in turn advised him to approach the Axis Bank head office in Mumbai. At the head office, he received good cooperation and the issue was resolved. He was allotted time to repay the excess sum. He later chose to withdraw the loan application from Axis Bank. He applied in SBI and received the loan promptly. Using the money he could start an agro-agency selling agricultural seeds, saplings, fertilizers etc. He is running the agency successfully and also plans to start new ventures for more economic gain.

Banks need to be educated

Banks are under-educated on banking norms and policies. They are unaware of their own apex body’s circulars and notifications. Whose fault is it? The clients are often at the receiving end of this ignorant and indifferent attitude of officials. Ashok Dhoni (name changed), a 17-year-old teenager from Ranchi, Jharkhand is suffering at the hands of two public sector banks – Oriental Bank of Commerce and Bank of Baroda-which adds to several other problems spewed out by nationalized banks in India. Ashok is the youngest of three siblings who were detected with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at the age of six which has led to a gradual loss of vision. His family’s financial constraints add to the problems Ashok is facing in his life. He was put into a special school growing up, heeding to the advice of his brother’s Mathematics teacher. But the facilities were inadequate in the school and he was not happy there. He convinced his parents to move to Delhi seeking better opportunities and facilities. In Delhi, he enrolled in a Government Senior Secondary School under the Social Welfare Department and got a hostel accommodation. At school, he was actively involved in many cultural and academic activities. With limited support from his family, he helped himself finding scholarship programs to pursue his academic interests.

In hindsight, sourcing money was less hard than depositing and withdrawing it for meeting his needs. Ashok opened an account in the Oriental Bank of Commerce which denied him an ATM card. He finally got the ATM card after producing for himself the RBI and IBA circulars. Then on his attempt to get an ATM card from the Bank of Baroda where he had an account for the past two years seemed even more difficult. Not only he was denied an ATM card, he was asked to bring along two account holders to give an undertaking on his behalf. At the same, his blind friend was also denied the ATM card by the same bank.

Ashok contacted Eyeway regarding this matter and our counselor provided him the contact of Nodal Officer A. Shankar Narayanan, Deputy General Manager and Deputy Zonal Head, Bank of Baroda. The Nodal Officer confessed his poor knowledge on the matter inadvertently by responding that they are not aware of such provisions for blind and asked him to mail RBI and IBA circulars. He was also advised to drop his complaint in the branch complaint drop box. Ashok did drop his complaint and contacted the officer again after few days, but he refused that he had received any complaint from Ashok. He again contacted Eyeway and the second time we provided him the contact of R L Sharma at the Reserve Bank of India Office. The response is awaited on this matter and Eyeway is keen on the course of this issue.

Empowered by ambition

Manish (name changed) visited the Eyeway center in Delhi with his parents on 16th October 2017. He is a 15-year-old boy pursuing Class 10 in DPS Sushant Lok. He lives with his parents and younger brother in Gurgaon. His vision is affected by Coloboma (a hole in one of the structures of the eye, such as the iris, retina, choroid, or optic disc) since birth but his vision impairment was noticed only when he was in Class 1. He has had few retinal detachment surgeries to prevent total blindness. He was referred to Eyeway by Dr. Varshini Shanker of Shroff Charity Eye Hospital and also by one of our trustees, Rajive Raturi.

Kanishq is passionate about studying Chemistry in his higher classes. But he is unsure and apprehensive of the possibility of following his passion given his eye condition. His school teachers have already suggested exempting him from Math education as it is hard to teach the subject to someone with vision loss. Kanishq wanted to know if he could still study Chemistry despite the fact that he had to drop out his Math class.
He was also curious to learn about career options open for a blind person. He even expressed a desire to pursue Cricket as a career as he extremely enjoyed the sport. We suggested him legal profession as a possible career route.

Manish’s family was completely unaware of the laws and provisions in place for visually impaired people. We suggested them to read up on the latest RPWD Act and we also sent them details of the CBSE rules and provisions for blind students. We recommended him to start using computers for his classwork and exams. Eyeway advised his parents to talk to the school authorities to switch his mode of studies from writing to computers. We also suggested that the school authorities should inform CBSE so they can send appropriate question papers in soft copies in the future.
At this point, it seemed Manish’s main concern was to learn about ways that could help him to cope with his studies. Eyeway suggested him to visit Saksham to learn more about assistive technology and textbooks in accessible formats.

Unaware, banks make disabled suffer

Azhar Mahmood (name changed) from Ludhiana (Punjab) reached the Eyeway Helpdesk. He is 30 years old. He was partially blind by birth and later on became totally blind. He first got in touch with Eyeway on Sep 2016 and conveyed to the counselor that he got to know about the Helpdesk after listening to a radio programme Eyeway Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karawan. As a child, he faced problems in his studies and later joined a special school to study Braille. After passing higher secondary, he got a government job in Grade D in Panchayati Raj Department which was five years ago. Azhar being a very industrious individual continued his studies further even with the job.  He completed his graduation and now he is pursuing his post-graduation.

A few months back he got in touch with us for some queries. He told us that he had a savings account in State Bank of India, Samrala branch, Ludhiana. Bank denying him a checkbook was his issue for which he was seeking redressal. Eyeway counselor provided him the RBI Circular which clearly states that ” Banking facilities including cheque book facility/operation of ATM/locker etc. cannot be denied to the visually challenged as they are legally competent to contract”. Also, the Banking Ombudsman Scheme, 2006 (amended 2017) assures provision for filing complaints and redressal of it. This is not one among the few cases but one among the multitude of banking services deprivation issues faced by visually impaired on a daily basis though these are clearly framed in the rule books as violations. These must be treated clearly as cases of ignorance and these banks must be educated that they are the debtors and their clients are the creditors and morally clients deserve a higher ground.

On follow-up, it was understood that he could resolve his banking problem by putting the RBI circular to effective use.

Bogged down by inaccessibility

30-year-old Neelam Singh (name changed), a resident of Delhi who is totally blind approached Eyeway in the month of October. She is employed with All India Radio since 2013 as a Stenographer. But she faces a lot of accessibility issues in her day to day working which not only impacts her performance but also harms her dignity and independence.

For almost two years into the job, Neelam was not provided with a computer to perform her daily duties. She finally got a computer in 2015 but it is of little use to her. As a blind user, she needs to have a computer with screen reading software, along with speakers and headphones. But the computer provided to her does not have screen reading software installed. Neither has she been issued speakers or headphones. At present, she is using her personal laptop to perform her duties.

The second challenge is with regards to marking her attendance. When she joined, she had to manually mark her attendance in a register. She depended on her sighted colleagues to mark a ‘P’ for her every day. This was later replaced by a swipe card which was again inaccessible to her. Neelam depended on her limited light perception to catch a red light indicator when she swiped the card to mark her attendance. Now, this has been further replaced by a biometric machine which requires all employees to enter six digits of their Aadhar card and then their fingerprints on a touchpad. The machine is completely inaccessible for visually impaired people as it has no tactile or braille markings and neither does it have any talkback facility to guide the person. Neelam has to depend on her sighted colleagues’ assistance to perform this basic function on a daily basis. This makes her feel dependent and disabled. She finds it humiliating for not being able to independently sail through the job functions or mark her attendance.

She sought help from her immediate supervisors and concerned department heads by lodging official complaints and requesting for assistive aids and appliances. She even wrote to the CCPD but till date hasn’t received any response. She tried to meet the CCPD in person to narrate her dilemma but was refused a meeting.

All it requires to help Neelam is a computer with screen reading software (NVDA), headphones and speakers. As for the biometric machine, one can get in touch with technology vendors who can suggest customized solutions for accessibility. Alternately one can also explore to install braille indicators on the machine. Neelam has also suggested the same to her section officer.

This case has been taken up by Eyeway as a case with the potential for advocacy and also to expose the system of its lacunae. Considering the limitations to be resolved on the Helpdesk and the need to force the ignorant system, Eyeway has engaged deeply with this case. Research desk has pulled out visible violations of the RPD Act 2016 like Section 40, 42(iii), 45 and the DoPT Guidelines 2014 whose guideline C on providing aids/assistive devices and guideline D on accessibility and barrier-free environment at the workplace is clearly violated. The matter of Neelam’s inaccessibility has been conveyed to the CCPD. The matter was put directly under the attention of Deputy CCPD Dr. Sanjay Kant Prasad. All necessary documents have been filed along with Neelam’s application as desired by the CCPD office. We hope the matter will soon be resolved so Neelam can continue her job with independence and dignity.