The fellowship gave me multiple opportunities to travel and explore new places. I visited Kolkata thrice for attending the workshop on ‘Early Language Learning’ organized by Vikramshila.
On my recent visit to Kolkata, I met a very talented young boy in the bus while I was traveling. He was visually challenged. I started the conversation and we chatted on multiple topics for next half an hour. This uncertain meet and the conversation brought back the memories of the time I initially met my friend Pradnya and how meeting her resulted in creation of ‘Team Vision’ to support the visually challenged students. This blog is about that journey.
I was in first year of my graduation, when I joined National Service Scheme (NSS) hoping it would give me a chance to do something different. Joining the NSS was one of the best decisions I have taken. It gave me an opportunity to get myself introduced with the multiple social issues that our country is facing and are needed to be addressed. While working with NSS, I started going as a scribe for the visually challenged students studying Arts.
And one fine day, I met Pradnya at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus station (erstwhile Victoria Terminus in south Mumbai) to write her exam of telephone exchange operator. Pradnya, visually challenged, graduate in Arts with Sociology, is a national level swimmer, champion of rope Mallakhamb, gold medalist in Javeline Throw and performs Jaladipaasana (the art of performing yoga, with a candle in glass placed on one’s forehead). Once we were done with her exam, she asked me if I can help her with reading some study material. She was looking forward to appear for the competitive exams she said. It was almost the time for vacations and there wasn’t much that I was planning. We often try finding ways that would benefit us in one or the other way, it’s a human tendency and that’s what I did. I agreed, thinking I would also learn and gain some general knowledge.
We used to meet at the campus of my college at 10am and end up by 5pm. This continued for almost two months. The interaction I had with Pradnya over this period of time taught me the most memorable lessons of life. I never noticed that there were bats on the tree next to our bench, but she did!
We often close eyes of person with our hands, every time we have to surprise them. We let them guess who it might be. I remember this guessing game and I also recall how big a challenge it was for me to identify the person closing my eyes …
While we were studying I realized how difficult it is for the visually challenged students to understand the concepts of math, science, logic and reasoning in their current forms. I struggled in making her understand what a radius and diameter is. I asked her to teach me Braille and she agreed, but she asked me to teach her shape of every alphabet in return. I made stencils and helped her feel and memorize the shape of alphabet and she succeeded. But I failed in identifying Braille letters without seeing them. However I was still happy that, at least I can write Braille.
Science was and is my weakness, I struggle a lot with it. One day, we were reading some concepts of science and technology and I was drowsy and started dozing. She stood up saying, “Sandesh! you read perfectly in sleep but take a power nap we’ll continue after some time.” I was surprised how she noticed it. Every now and then Pradnya kept amazing me. She travels across the country alone. But she had a fear of walking alone in Matunga where we used to study. She had some bad incident in past. I wanted her to get over that fear. Also I wanted her to walk without cane, daily we took it as an energizer, I use to direct her and she use to walk, just like the blindfold game we played in our childhood – and she played it with excellence. One day, when she was to collect some material from her friend (who was visually challenged as well) I asked her to go alone and complete the task. She took more than an hour to reach station, travel by train and come back. I couldn’t sit at one place until she was back safe. But yes! that was needed to bring her confidence back …
Somewhere in the middle of April 2013, we were studying as usual and I received a call for five scribes to be arranged within an hour. This sudden requirement was for the exam which was arranged for the visually challenged students who could not appear for the regular exam because of shortage of scribes. Arranging five scribes on such a short notice was a task. I called my friends to see if anyone was available. However, due to vacations it was hardly possible to find someone who was available close by. I managed to arrange two of my friends. But the problem wasn’t solved. We were three. One of the college peons joined us. I chose to write for two students at a time. I sat between the two of them to write their exam. I was writing each one’s paper for five minutes. While I was writing the paper for the first person I used to ask the other one to think about his answer.
After the exam, I went back to Pradnya to carry on with the reading. But I was still thinking about the experience I had just been through. Pradnya noticed my silence and asked what happened. I told her the incident to which she responded,
“This is how it is! This has been happening for years and years now. Do you know I have done a record of taking seven writers for seven different subjects for my class twelve board exam? I hardly had time to revise anything for the exam, because every day I was busy finding writer for my next day’s exam. And you know what? There have been instances where the writer was not able to get to the venue on time. I used to lose my patience and that affected my exam. There are people trying to work on this issue but there is lot needed still.”
“Can we do something about it?” I asked.
“Yes, we should!” she replied.
We had number of discussions about it. We met some of our friends and professors, together we made an action plan and started working on it. The primary motive was, no student will miss his/her exam. We started campaigning in my college and within a day we had around two hundred volunteers willing to appear as a scribe. But unfortunately 90% of them weren’t fluent in writing Marathi which was the medium for most of the students. We decided to spread a message on social media and I was thrilled with the response. For the next seven days my phone was ringing continuously. I wasn’t able to answer hundreds of calls and people started thinking that it was a fake message been circulated. I spent the entire next month calling each and every number which I could not attend and to give a rough figure we had almost two thousand volunteers willing to work with us.
However the issue was not resolved. While we were working on getting writers for the students, we had another problem that was bought into our notice. The volunteers started complaining that the students are not prepared and have asked them to answer their exam. This made us go back to the students and understand the reason behind it. When we had an interaction with the students we came to know that students do not have enough study material available.
Converting graduation level syllabus in Braille was not a feasible idea. So we decided to set up an audio library where we converted all the study material into audio format. We had an amazing response for the audio library, majorly from the housewives, they helped us record the books and share the soft copy with us and soon the issue of lack of study material was getting resolved and so were the complaints from the writers.
Mr. Mahesh Deshpande, one of my professors acted as a guide and a motivator to us. He is the one who suggested the term ‘Vision’. On July 14th, 2013 we formed a team of five of us and that’s how ‘Team Vision’ was formed. Then onward, we did multiple activities like trekking, to go beyond academics and build a rapport among students and volunteers. Cultural events like The Lantern, to provide a platform to the visually challenged students where they dance, sing, play instruments, act, do the anchoring and host the complete event. We are conducting Personality Development Program where we are trying to teach them basic math and conversational English; along with general awareness and counseling sessions to boost their morale. All this is running successfully because Pradnya and many other students played major role in framing these activities.
We aim to make every visually challenged student independent. To make this possible, we are insisting to get the exams computerized. Where, the students will be able to write their exams on their own. Many colleges and universities across the country are taking positive move to make this happen. Simultaneously, we are trying to make the students well versed in English and techno-friendly in order to be self-sufficient to appear for the computerized exams on their own.