Empowering the Visually Impaired: Opportunities & Challenges

By George Abraham

Hari Raghavan does business development at Dell. Charudatta Jadhav is an International Chess master and an IT professional with TCS. Pankaj Sinha is a practicing lawyer at the Delhi High Court. Dilip Loyolka, Samir Late and Rajani Gopalkrishna are practicing Chartered Accountants. Sudha Patel, Sanjay Dang and Siddhartha Sharma are entrepreneurs. Sundeep Rao is a stand-up comedian. G. Subramaniam and L. Subramani are journalists. Payal Kapur is a sales professional with a hotel. All of them are blind and all of them are extremely accomplished and successful. The question to be considered is “are these people merely outstanding exceptions or are these people examples pointing towards possibilities and potential in a life with blindness?”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there are over 62 million people in the country who are blind and visually impaired. The Government counts them at about 5.4 million while activists put the figures at 42 million. Whatever be the actual numbers, we can safely state that the population of blind and visually impaired persons in India is extremely large, larger than the population of Australia, New Zealand or several of the countries from Europe. Most of these blind and visually impaired persons live in the margins of our society untouched and unreached by Government and NGO programmes.

To go with the large population, there is a wide spread ignorance and misconception prevalent amongst various stakeholders. A few years ago a colleague and I had a meeting with a senior Government bureaucrat working in the sector. During the meeting, I switched on my laptop to take notes. The bureaucrat was visibly surprised and shocked. He stopped midway and said, “I thought you were blind. How come you are working on the laptop?”. I had to tell him about screen reading softwares and how they have empowered and enabled blind people to work on computers. If Government officials and policy makers themselves are unaware, then how can one expect the common man to be enlightened. Parents more often than not do not know how to deal with a blind child. Schools do not have an understanding of how they could handle a blind student.

Corporates do not know how to deploy employees who are blind. There are several occasions when people have lost their jobs or quit when they have started losing their   vision.

People are so obsessed with the blindness that they tend to believe that life has come to a standstill if the person has no sight or has lost his vision. The focus tends to entirely be on the blindness and whatever talent or ability the person possesses is totally undermined. A few years ago a Professor of English who happened to be blind was traveling by train. The ticket examiner refused to accept the fact that the Professor was blind inspite of a proper disability certificate. The railway official could not simply believe that a blind person could speak English. So, it is not just ignorance but also perceptions.

In fact, we at Score Foundation believe that Blindness is not the real problem but the challenge is with the thinking. We launched Project Eyeway in 2003 with the object of informing, inspiring and empowering blind and visually impaired people through knowledge sharing. Eyeway is a single stop knowledge resource on the domain ofliving a life of blindness. It comprises of the website www.eyeway.org, the radio programme ‘Eyeway, Yeh Hai Roshni ka Karwan’, the Eyeway whatsapp alert service, the telephone help desk. Between 2005 and 2015, we received an average of 60-70 calls a week. The queries covered a wide range of subjects from blind and visually impaired persons from across India. The calls pertained to issues of discrimination, rights, education, career guidance, parenting, Government policies/provisions, sports, reading resources and so on.

Given the large numbers and the prevailing diversity in terms of language, culture, socioeconomic status of the country, we decided to scale up the Eyeway Helpdesk from being a single NGO operation to being an operation managed and run by a network of NGOs from across the country. Instead of being a single helpdesk, it is evolving into a network of helpdesks that is responding to a single toll free number from anywhere in the country. The responsibility of gathering information, responding to queries, advocating for change and sustaining the helpdesk would be shared. This would result in lower costs, wider coverage, greater stability and higher impact. The Eyeway Helpdesk is being transformed from being a single NGO enterprise to being a multi NGO partnership venture.

When our Hon’ble Prime Minister had launched the Skill India programme, the Government had set itself a target of training and placing 38 million people with disability by 2022. We at Score Foundation also decided to climb the skilling band wagon. We interviewed over 400 visually impaired students who were either Graduates or Post Graduates. It was found that over 80 per cent of the people we met were neither employable nor trainable. It is important for us to recognise that most employability skills are picked up over a life time and simply cannot be gathered over a 6 to 12 month training programme. The students were terribly short on skills of critical thinking, logic, communication, analysis, interpersonal relations, computers.They lacked any kind of self-belief or ambition. Their ability to converse in Hindi or English was below par. Most of them were at the 6th or 7th standard level. Someone had recently written on social media and I quote: “A child at birth is a potential genius, but when he or she starts engaging with the World, they end up being morons. The quality of education our country offers the blind children is highly compromised. Curriculum is diluted and subjects like Mathematics and Science are dropped after Class 8 simply because the teachers are ill-equipped to teach. Blind children are given the choice of doing handicraft or music instead.”

Inclusion and Inclusive Education were the buzz words in the 1990s. Inclusive Education is a powerful concept. An inclusive classroom gives students an opportunity of learning and growing up experiencing, recognizing and appreciating the diversity of the country. This will produce citizens, bureaucrats and professionals who are sensitive and understanding. But then to make inclusion work, there is a need to be
organized with appropriate curriculums, teachers’ trainings, accessible infrastructure, accessible teaching and learning material and assistive technologies. Unfortunately, limited understanding of inclusion, poor execution, resistance from teachers and the humiliating experiences of children studying in inclusive schools have made activists across the country question and oppose the very idea of inclusive education.

From the 1990s onwards, technological advances have opened up various avenues for blind and visually impaired persons to participate in a variety of mainstream spaces. Screen reading technologies have revolutionized the way blind people can live life today. Mobile phones and computers have magically transformed possibilities. Suddenly books, the internet, newspapers, banking and host of other services have
come within the reach of the blind citizens. The Prime Minister’s Digital India programme can pave the path for total inclusion. Digital India talks of digitising governance, digital infrastructure and digital literacy. With screen reading technology, the blind person can easily participate in all of the above, provided the implementers of Digital India are aware and mindful of including accessibility features.

Talking of access, the Government’s plans of creating over 100 smart cities again give the opportunity of including persons with blindness. The apprehension however is whether people in policy and decision making have the vision and understanding of the opportunity. Universal design is another piece of modern vocabulary in the disability sector. Create products, design infrastructure or plan programmes that all citizens including people with disability use and participate with independence, safety and dignity. Delhi Metro is often touted as a good example of Universal Design. It might not be perfect but the intent to include is clear. The iPhones and the Android phones have built in accessibility features. When we plan our classrooms, events, programmes do we think of the blind user or participants?

“Blind people love their cricket. The romance and thrills of the game sparked the imagination of blind people through the radio commentaries in the 1960s and 1970s. In several blind schools across the country blind children were seen rolling empty tins and hitting them with sticks. Soon the sticks were replaced by bats and the tins by plastic balls filled with ball bearings. Blind cricket was born. I saw the game being played at a blind school at Dehradun for the first time and decided to promote it. I realized that:

  • Blind people enjoyed the sport and had the skills to play it.
  • The game could help develop talent and abilities.
  • The game could become a platform for the blind players to express and project themselves.
  • The game could also create opportunities for travel and learning.

I launched the National Cricket programme in 1990, set up the World Blind Cricket Council in 1996 and organized the first ever World Cup in 1998 which now happens every 4 years. In 2007, I handed over the management and promotion of the game to a younger team. In December 2014, the Indian blind cricket team for the first time lifted the World Cup. The nation took notice of the game. Prime Minister Modi invited the team home and felicitated the players. TV channels did interviews. Cash awards were announced. I was thrilled. A project that I had conceived and launched finally seemed to have come of age. I am no longer involved with the game but the game moves on carrying forward the dreams and aspirations of a new generation.

Though a majority of blind and visually impaired citizens of the country presently live in the margins of our society and economy, the few success stories clearly establish that they are a potential Human Resource. It is time to look at them in that light. Our perspective needs to shift from merely providing for them to investing in them. There is an urgent need for investing and upgrading the education that the blind child receives. It might be difficult to setup an inclusive schooling system but the special schools can certainly be upgraded. There is a great need for quality teachers who deliver learning with passion and purpose. These blind children need to grow up with dreams and desires to be part of the mainstream rather than to be reconciled to a reserved position in the Public Sector. Accessibility and Universal Design have to become part of the DNA of all planning, design and creation. For all this to happen, there is need for an ongoing and consistent conversation in the public domain that spreads an awareness and comfort level for all stakeholders to start accepting the idea of a mainstream with all its diversity.

This article first appeared in the IMI Konnect Volume 5 (6) 2016 (Special Issue)