Technology has emerged as the new language to help the blind see. It's no longer necessary for a blind person to know Braille was the consensus that seemed to emerge among participants and organisers of a unique car rally in the city this weekend.
At the rally, visually-impaired people, who are forced to depend on others all their lives, were seen helping sighted drivers navigate city roads with the help of maps in Braille and other tools.
Some of the available tools were JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a screen reader providing speech and Braille output to visually-impaired computer users, which can be accessed by all. There was also DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System), a software player that renders text, audio and embedded images for the blind.
"Technology is breaking all barriers. The difference between those who read Braille and those who read the alphabet is blurring. Now both can communicate via e-mail, which serves as a common medium," said JS Jayara, the 50-year-old blind principal of the Institute of Blind, Sector 26, a city-based school providing free education to blind students from Class 1 to 12.
"When I was a student, people would read to me, which was very difficult to retain. I later learnt Braille," added Jayara. "Technological advancements were being made even then, but they were not affordable and accessible to everyone," he added.
"All senior secondary students have been provided with a DAISY player to make recording and memorising notes easier. Braille is used only when using the written format," said Urmil Sharma, a science teacher at the blind school.
"I know several blind people who do not know Braille but are doing well in life. It is no longer necessary for a blind person to know Braille, such has been the technological advancement over the last few years," she added. "A non-resident Indian will be donating iPads to all Class-12 students this year," she added.
There are also smart canes with sensors. "We have 'Smart Canes' with sensors these days to help the blind navigate effectively," said Poonam Tyagi, honorary secretary of National Association for the Blind's Meerut chapter.
Even as technology takes the centre stage, other issues in the blind's life remain.
Policy changes/government support
The implementation of Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, was a major milestone in ensuring equal opportunities, protection of rights and inclusive participation of the disabled in the nation-building process, which was consolidated with the enactment of Right to Education Act in 2009, making free and compulsory education the right of every child.
"No school can deny admission to a disabled child today in India," said Sharma, who has been teaching blind children for 25 years now.
"When I had joined, no teacher used to stay for long because of the low salary. It was in 1992 that the school was sanctioned grant-in-aid. Since then, 95% of our salary is provided by the UT administration."
"The UT adviser is the president of the welfare society which runs the school. It helps in smooth administration, getting government approvals and ensures security," said Nath.
"It is just the technical fields that are a no-go zone, rest all other avenues are open for them," said Sharma.
Tyagi agreed. "Sky is the limit for them. Barring a few professions including the Indian Police Service and driving, they are fit to do any work. They can even start their own ventures. Certain jobs such as teaching, even has reservations for them," she said.
Attitudinal shift required
"While people have become sensitive to the needs of the disabled in big cities, small towns still remain insensitive and indifferent," said Tyagi. "Though there has been tremendous improvement at the technological front, but people will take another 50 years to change their mindset. We do not need anyone's sympathy. We need to be empowered," said Jayara.
"One of my former students did her graduation, post-graduation, cleared NET, got married and does all her household work in spite of being blind. She is still not respected by her in-laws. They want to kick her out of the house," shared Sharma.
Students of the blind school in Chandigarh live in well-constructed and secure hostels, are given three nutritious meals a day, enjoy the services of a permanent medical supervisor and have transport facilities, "Everything changes if you go 50 kms away in any direction from a major city," said Tyagi, who has opened a centre at Meerut and also works in the villages so that "the available benefits are not just concentrated to select cities.""First we need to have electricity in villages. Only then can we make them use JAWS or DAISY," added Tyagi.
More needs to be done
A lot has changed over the years, but is not enough. "About 1.5 crore people cannot see in India," said Nath.
"We need to make books available in Braille in larger numbers, there is no policy yet urging publishers to also release their content in the form of audio books, and travelling is a major problem," pointed out Tyagi.