World Disability Day Musings

By George Abraham

Every blind Indian is potentially a part of the Human Resource of the country. They must be invested in and not merely provided for. The nation needs to realize this as much as the government, the society, the families and the blind person himself or herself needs to realize this. There is a huge potential which we need to recognize, nurture and tap into.

Sudha Patel was blind from birth. People in the community told her parents to get rid of her since they believed that she was going to be a burden. But her parents believed that she was God’s gift to them and they needed to accept her the way she was. They educated her and she went onto become the first blind woman Sarpanch of her village. She served a full term of 5 years, delivering on all counts. She learnt yoga going on to become a yoga teacher and an entrepreneur dealing in Patanjali products.

Garimella Subramaniam was also blind from birth. He hails from a village in Andhra Pradesh. His parents sent him to the Little Flower School for the blind in Chennai, Loyola College for graduation and to Jawaharlal Nehru University for a Post Graduation degree. He won a government scholarship and went onto the London School of Economics to acquire a PhD. On his return to India he got a job with The Hindu as a journalist. Today he is All India Senior Editor with them.

Sheikh Muzamal Haq hails from a small rural town of Pandua in West Bengal. His father ran a small shoe business. Muzamal was blind from early childhood. His father said that he would provide for his needs and look after him. But as Muzamal grew up, he realized that he needed to be educated and empowered since his parents would not be there for him forever. He insisted on going to Kolkata for his school education. He got involved with his father’s business and later started his own STD booth which with time evolved into a Cyber Cafe. Later a travel company approached him to represent them in his district. He is now married and a contented man.

Charudatta Jadhav was the son of a textile mill worker in Mumbai. He was visually impaired from childhood. When the mills shut down in the early 1970s, his father was out of a job and poor health prevented him from working elsewhere. His mother had to take up work to educate and support Charu and his siblings. Charu completed his college degree and got a telephone operator’s job with a nationalized bank. But Charu felt he was made for bigger things. He took up evening classes for a B.Tech degree in IT which he completed in 5 years. He quit his government job and joined an IT firm. Today he is a Senior Executive with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

There are similar inspirational stories from across the globe as well. David Blunkett was blind from an early age of 5. He did a degree in politics, joined the Labour Party, stood for elections, became a Member of Parliament and was appointed the Home Secretary in Tony Blaire’s cabinet. Erik Weihenmayer was again blind from an early age. His parents brought him up empowered to face the ups and downs of the world. He developed a passion for mountaineering. He is among a select band of global elite who could proudly claim to have scaled the tallest mountain peaks in every continent. He climbed Mount Everest in May 2001. And mountaineering is demanding because it calls for specific skills, great teamwork and a lot of courage.

All these stories clearly settle the point that blind people have the potential talent. They just need to be provided with opportunities that will help them nurture their talent.

A few years ago I had gone for a meeting with a state government senior bureaucrat. During the course of the meeting, I switched on my laptop to take notes. The bureaucrat stopped halfway in the discussion to ask me how I was working on a computer when I was blind. I paused to demonstrate to him how screen readers worked and made it easy for blind people to work on platforms like MS Office, browse the internet etc. The official was fascinated and asked if this technology could be introduced into the Universities in his State. The point is that often it is bureaucrats like these, who are unaware of potential possibilities and opportunities, who are in charge of formulating policies and determining future course of action for people with disabilities. We need to work towards a greater engagement between the stakeholders and government in developing goals and plans for people with disabilities in the country.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with great fanfare announced the “Skill India” campaign to address the problem of unemployment facing the nation. Score Foundation also decided to take up skill development for the blind and visually impaired graduates and post graduates. After interviewing over 400 blind candidates for the programme and it was discovered that 90% of the candidates interviewed were neither employable nor trainable. They were short on basics. Poor critical thinking, communications, language skills, social skills, general knowledge, computer skills and the list could go on. It was concluded that a 6 month or a 12 month training programme would not make a difference. Many of the employability skills are acquired over a lifetime.  Skill development might just about help address the immediate problem of unemployed blind youth. But the real problem needs to be addressed in the education system that continues churning out unemployable youth. The country needs to make a resolution to make the education system more accountable. We simply cannot afford to spend crores on skill development to deal with the failings of the education offered to children.

Education is critical for building an energetic, enterprising and capable workforce for our nation to keep our economy vibrant and ticking. This holds good for the education meted out to the blind children of the country. Blind children should grow up thinking of professional options and ways of realizing their dreams rather than being obsessed with government jobs and rights. The problem with our nation is that most people just think of rights and are not bothered about responsibilities. The corporate world demands for competent, independent professionals. In the formative years, blind children grow up depending on scribes to write their exams. This practice continues till the time they have completed their education. While the practice of using scribes might seem appropriate, it perpetuates dependency. Blind children are introduced to computers right from the early class of 2 and 3. They should be initiated into doing their assignments, research and exams on computers from say class 7. This would be empowering not only in terms of computer skills but also in terms of writing skills, knowledge gathering, communication skills and so on. The great thing with computers is that it gives the option of taking printouts in Braille as well as in text. Braille print outs can be used by blind persons for their independent study while regular text print outs can be used to submit assignments and exam papers.  This move will make the young blind graduate passing out of the system more employable. Let us commit to raising the quality of the education we offer our blind children. Let us establish direct links between education and employment.