Yes! Technology can be a gamechanger for students with disabilities

By Shruti Pushkarna

Before you label this column (or the columnist) as being unnecessarily critical of everything (and everyone), let me dish out a few positive thoughts. I know I haven’t been an ardent supporter of the present-day leadership, and I’ve repeatedly highlighted the ignorance (and convenient oversight) of several stakeholders including our dear friends in the media, vis-à-vis issues faced by the disabled population. But I’m not a pessimist. If anything, I anticipate a better tomorrow.

One such promise was reflected in my recent reading of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. It left me exhilarated. Education in fact has been in the news for quite some time now. Starting with the Class X and XII results, college applications, Delhi University Open Book Examinations, and now the debate around NEET and JEE. But this new policy can be a serious gamechanger and anyone working in this space should be excited. Read more

Need to factor in Access for Disabled at the Ayodhya Ram Mandir

By Shruti Pushkarna

I have worked in television newsrooms for most part of my journalistic career. Despite several misgivings, I enjoyed the energy in that space, especially while handling major coverage like the elections, Union Budget or any special programming. The increased tabloidisation of news may have compelled me to quit, but as they say, old habits die hard. The mind is still drawn to TV channels on ‘big news days’.

August 5, 2020 was one such historic event for the country when Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and the whole jingbang) reached Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone of the Ram temple. Most TV stations started their countdown to the ‘bhavya bhoomi pujan’ a day before. Special graphics dipped in hues of yellow and orange flashed on the screens. Anchors dressed in ethnic attire welcomed the audience to this ‘sanskari saffron shindig’. Read more

Do we see an opportunity for the disabled in the new normal?

By Shruti Pushkarna

In times ridden with conflicting opinions about almost everything under the sun, I think we can safely agree that Covid-19 has changed how we interact with the environment. And I’m not just referring to the natural surroundings but also the environment where daily professional and social engagements take place.

The world is rapidly changing. And yet one thing remains the same. The intrinsic need to validate our existence. In the absence of physical interactions, we still want to be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’.

‘Visibility’ is what defines us. And visibility is what we don’t offer to the disabled population of the country. The famous proverb ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is an apt description. Their near-absence in places of employment, education and entertainment have made them non-existent to the ableist majority. Read more

Is the academic triumph of disabled students not sexy enough for the media?

By Shruti Pushkarna

CBSE Class XII results were declared earlier this week. As always news reports flowed in, citing the best performing schools and students across the country. For students and teachers who have worked hard through the year, this is their moment of glory. Top scorers hog the media limelight, sharing their tall tales of rigorous preparations.

Among the list of achievers were also Dhruv from Jalandhar who topped his district with 98.2% as well as triplets from Mangaluru, Jeevan, Jayesh and Jitesh who each scored over 90%. What sets the four of them apart from their peers is their lack of eye sight. Well only physically. Not one of them has allowed their blindness to become their defining trait. Actually what distinguishes these visually impaired students from the school-going herd, is their grit to succeed and sheer love for education.

Incidentally this is not the first time when students with disabilities have aced the result charts. Last year, Lavannya Balakrishnan and Anushka Panda topped in the special needs category. Lavannya who is hearing impaired and Anushka who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, both scored over 97% in their CBSE XII and X boards respectively. Read more

After COVID-19, Open Book Exam Emerges as the Latest Challenge for the Blind

By Shabnam Durani

The Delhi University’s (DU) decision to conduct an Open Book Examination (OBE) for those in their final year has created a sense of panic among the blind and visually impaired students. There are approximately 800 students with vision impairment studying in DU, out of which around 350 will appear for their final exams this year.

The lockdown announcement caught many of these students off guard and they rushed home to stay safe amid the coronavirus scare. Those who couldn’t travel back were stuck in their hostels or temporary accommodation without much support. Already facing difficulties at the hands of the pandemic, the varsity’s announcement made things worse.

Coming from a weak socio-economic background, the majority of visually impaired students are struggling with the new online medium of preparation and assessment, as they have limited or no access to devices (such as laptop/computer, smartphone or scanner), internet and study material. Read more

Is the media guilty of making assumptions about the disabled?

By Shruti Pushkarna

Last Thursday I attended an online session (thanks to Covid, we are all high on Zoom) where a renowned journalist and television news anchor was in conversation with a group of around eighty visually impaired people. It was a heterogeneous mix with regards to the participants’ geography and demography.

 

And no the talk was not about blindness. Or Disability. Or any of the safely assumed stereotypes that are fluttering in your mind as you imagine a person with dark glasses and a white cane.

 

Us humans, we love to ‘assume’. If our neighbours are not chatty, we assume they are antisocial or just weird. The guy drinking a little too much in an office party is an assumed alcoholic (maybe even a wife-beater, if he has a grouchy face). Similarly, a blind person is often assumed to be uneducated, unemployed and uninterested in the happenings around. Read more

COVID-19 Lockdown Has Made Life Harsher For The Blind

By Shabnam Durani

In 2006, Score Foundation, which works with people with vision impairment  set up a helpline for the blind which emerged from the response to a weekly programme, ‘Eyeway – ye hai roshni ka karvaan’  (caravan of light), on All India Radio (AIR), which was informative, inspirational and empowering.  In 2015, with a view to addressing the language diversity and provide local solutions, Eyeway evolved into a network of helplines run by partner NGOs in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi, which handles the Hindi-speaking states. The author, who works for SCORE Foundation, writes about how the last three months have been spent in responding to the distress calls from visually impaired in different parts of the country.

Until three months ago, Delhi-based Ritu Jain and Darshana Jain in Mumbai were part of a team of visually impaired counsellors, handling a toll-free national helpline for blind people, called Eyeway. They were fielding about 1500 calls a month from persons seeking guidance regarding education, employment, legal provisions, accessibility and social security.

However, since the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown, all they have been getting is distress calls with stories of pain and desperation from all over the country – Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

According to the Indian government, there are 5.4 million people with vision impairment in the country (activists put the figure at 42 million, while the World Health Organisation gives an estimate of around 62 million). A large section of this population is either unemployed and dependent on government provisions or working as daily wagers in the unorganised sector.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, serious mobility challenges resulting in loss of livelihood have not only pushed them further towards marginalisation but also severely dented their chances of survival. Read more

Is the media guilty of making assumptions about the disabled?

By Shruti Pushkarna

Last Thursday I attended an online session (thanks to Covid, we are all high on Zoom) where a renowned journalist and television news anchor was in conversation with a group of around eighty visually impaired people. It was a heterogeneous mix with regards to the participants’ geography and demography.

And no the talk was not about blindness. Or Disability. Or any of the safely assumed stereotypes that are fluttering in your mind as you imagine a person with dark glasses and a white cane.

Us humans, we love to ‘assume’. If our neighbours are not chatty, we assume they are antisocial or just weird. The guy drinking a little too much in an office party is an assumed alcoholic (maybe even a wife-beater, if he has a grouchy face). Similarly, a blind person is often assumed to be uneducated, unemployed and uninterested in the happenings around.

These assumptions are derived from personal biases, misconceptions, limited imagination and a compulsive urge to judge another. Read more

Is the Battle for Inclusion being fought with an Exclusive Mindset?

By Shruti Pushkarna

In the past, I have written a few pieces on accessibility and the rights of persons with disabilities to be part of all that is mainstream. As I began to pen down my thoughts, I realized that ‘disability’ is always looked at as a ‘separate’ domain. By governments, by businesses, by non-profits, by educationists, and even by advocates of ‘disability’. When all stakeholders are guilty of looking at the subject as separate from the rest of the society, then how can we single out anyone and pin the onus of change?

I also realised that amid the current crisis, a new normal is emerging and unfortunately persons with disabilities are not part of this discourse either. Old habits are shaping new, existing policies are being extended to incorporate new rules but the approach remains the same. One of looking at disability separate from the rest, as the other which needs ‘accommodation’ or needs to somehow ‘fit in’.

Retrofitting is at the root of all things that continue to remain inaccessible. An idea that is designed for a majority and leaves out the vulnerable minority will never be able to cater to everyone’s needs. The makeshift solution is either inadequate or temporary. Patches begin to surface as more people start accessing it. And then the scuffle for revising and revamping ensues.

Build a mall without an elevator or a ramp. Then renovate it to make it ‘accessible’ for someone on a wheelchair. Build a home with a narrow staircase and no handrail. Then renovate it for older family members to move about independently. The list goes on. Read more

Is our understanding of ‘accessibility’ limited by an ableist approach?

By Shruti Pushkarna

Four years ago, when I started working with visually impaired people with the objective of including them into the mainstream, I was introduced to a whole set of new terminologies. It took me a few weeks, maybe months to become abreast with the domain lingo and issues. I guess this happens in every profession where you are working within a niche. Back in the days of journalism as well, there was a fair bit of ‘education’ involved every time one was expected to write on a new subject.

Among the many new terms thrown at me in the workplace, in meetings and at events, the most frequently used were ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusion’. With time, my understanding evolved and I figured these were key to the rights being advocated for persons with disabilities. And this wasn’t an easy battle against a society largely governed by ‘ableism’.

Read more