“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” said poet Maya Angellou. And, this is what Antarchakshu seeks to do through a programme aimed at sensitizing the general public as well policy makers about the issues related to the mainstreaming of the visually challenged.
In a novel initiative Antarakshu seeks to engages people from all walks of life in different activities and tasks blindfolded for about half an hour to open the eyes of the sighted to the world of the visually challenged. The aim of this awareness programme is to remove the prejudices, myths and misconceptions about the capabilities of the visually challenged with or without technical aides in the areas of education and employment and financial transactions and give them firsthand experience of the challenges that confront the visually handicapped.
The unique event developed by Xavier’s Resource centre for the Visually Challenged was not inaugurated by the cutting of the ribbons or lighting of the lamps but the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Mukul Wasnik to engage in all these activities and tasks blindfolded to get a firsthand experience and insight into the challenges faced by visually handicapped.
What are the problems that the visually challenged face in day to day life? The first challenge is their mobility.
Visually handicapped Harish Kumar has to commute daily from his home across Yamuna in Shivpuri to Blind Relief Association on Mathura Road in Delhi where he makes candles for a living. Many a time he and hundreds like him stranded for long hours at bus stands as they are unable to make out which bus number has arrived. They have to depend on good Samaritans to help them cross the road. Many roads do not have pavements and even if there are pavements, the hurdles or open pits are a big hindrance themselves. Also pavements are not only encroached, but in peak hours of traffic, the scooters and motor cycles drivers break all rules to use the pavements. While the visually challenged have a white cane to find their way isn’t there a need for barrier free environment for the differently abled people?
Why not put yourself in the situation of a visually challenged for a while. The first activity at Antarchakshu for the sighted is to walk on an uneven and obstacle-ridden simulated footpath blindfolded with a white cane and the sounds to guide your way. Once you do it yourself you know what the difficulties are and become aware of the need for creating barrier free environment. In many countries beepers are used signaling green light for the vehicles or the pedestrians. While the accessibility of Delhi Metro stations as well as the announcements on the running metro about coming stations are disabled friendly, but the problem says Harish is that many visually challenged prefer buses because they get free passes but there are no facilities for announcement about stations or arrival of a bus for a particular destination at the bus stops.
The handling of money and financial transactions is another problem that the visually challenged confront. So in another activity the blindfolded person has to identify the value of the coins. This is to highlight that the visually challenged should be able to identify the values of the coin by feeling the thickness or the size of the coin. An exhibition also highlights the need for paper currency of different values to be of different sizes.
In fact RBI in its programme of incusing banking has asked banks to open talking ATMs and make them accessible to other differently abled to use this facility. NCR Corporation, India’s largest ATM service provider, is all set to transform over 2,500 State Bank of India (SBI) ATMs to Voice-Guided ATMs -- which not only allows access to visually impaired people but also people with physical disabilities through ramps for wheel chair access. SBI’s first ‘real’ ATM for the visually impaired was showcased at the awareness event organized by Xavier's Research Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
NCR’s ‘Talking ATMs’ are incorporated with unique software and hardware features which ensures that a person with a disability can operate the machine on his own, while maintaining the safety of the transaction.
Another set of activities at the event are aimed at removing the misconception, myths and prejudices on the areas of education and employability ofvisually challenged whether it is studying geography or science subjects. As you go through the simulating activities blindfolded you know whether it is calculations, or identifying places on tactical maps or differentiating between plastics or metals or other kinds of materials or identifying files or working on computers the visually challenged can do all this with certain changes in the design or production of the gadgets or software’s.
The whole effort is to show that with little imaginative and innovative ways and with the help of the technical aides, a visually challenged person can get into areas of education and employment which were earlier thought out of bounds for them. Even today most of the visually challenged are engaged in candle making, caning or similar activities. The employers and educational institutes need to understand that the capabilities of the visually challenged are manifold and these should be put to use optimally.
One of the activity showed how with little innovations games can be made accessible to the visually challenged by using sound as a tool and how some games like chess can be played between the sighted and visually challenged partners with little change in the design.
Once the sighted, employers and the policy makers are sensitized through such programmes, there is bound to be a change in their attitude and perception which ultimately can help in mainstreaming of the differently abled and that is what Antarchakshu activities are aimed at.
Going by the 2001 census figures, there were 1.06 crore visually challenged in country, and their present number may be much more.
The government has been taking a number of initiatives to mainstream the differently abled. It is also now coming out with a new law on disability which ensures the right of equality, non discrimination and inclusivity to the differently abled. The draft has been made public and the centre is awaiting the response of the states before bringing it in the parliament. The Right to Education also says that no school can deny admission to a differently abled child. But today even the most basic of necessities like white cane and text book in Braille and are not available to all and there is also an acute shortage of trained teachers.
There is a long journey ahead before the differently abled are mainstreamed into the society, with the NGO’s joining the government efforts and people shedding their prejudices and old attitudes, the dream of inclusive society can be accomplished.
(The author is a Freelance Writer and the views expressed in this article are her own)