In Delhi schools, visually impaired students struggle to be seen

A. Mariyam Alavi
Burhaan Kinu

Classes, especially early in the day, are usually a breeze for Mohammed Ikhlaq, the 15 year old class monitor in Class 8 at the Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, colloquially known as the Pahadi School.

But in the winter months, when it’s dark by the time the sixth period starts at 5 pm, it gets a little difficult for Ikhlaq. He walks up to the front of the dimly lit classroom and peers intently at the blackboard to read what his Math teacher writes on the board.

By the seventh period, which starts at 5:30 pm, he has to rely on his friends to keep up with his favourite subject, English.

“The English teacher writes in huge letters on the board to help me out, but some days I still can’t see it,” Ikhlaq said, “So I take my friend’s notes home and copy the work the next day morning.”

The child of a widowed mother, Ikhlaq, 15, is visually impaired. He has congenital glaucoma and cannot see in dim light, or make out small and distant objects. He wears thick glasses, which give him a headache and make him dizzy at times, and reads books by holding them just inches from his face.

Congenital glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness among children in India according to the National programme for Control of Blindness in India. The disease can have genetic causes, and the damage it causes is irreversible at Ikhlaq’s age according to Dr Jeewan Singh Titiyal, an ophthalmologist at AIIMS. While Ikhlaq is legally blind as defined by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, his younger brother, 13 year old Mohammed Armaan, is completely blind because of glaucoma and studies at a residential school for the blind in Lajpat Nagar.

Mohammed Ikhlaq, 15, is one of the visually impaired children studying in Delhi government schools, and in his dimly lit classroom, he sometimes has to stand close to the black board to be able to see it.

During the day, Ikhlaq is like any other teenager his age; racing through the narrow lanes of Sangam Vihar on his bicycle, dropping his younger sister to school in the early morning, playing with his siblings at home, and helping his mother out in household chores.

Once the sun sets, he finds it difficult to navigate his everyday life as he can’t see clearly in dim light. As an evening shift student, he has trouble finding his way home.

“Cars start using their headlights by then. I go almost completely blind if the light hits my eye,” he said. “So if there is a traffic jam on the road, with all the vehicles flashing their headlights, or if a car comes speeding towards me, I may not be able to see it in time.”

So in the evenings, he waits for another brother, Mohammed Istekhar, or his classmates to escort him home.

Ikhlaq is one of the four visually impaired children studying and one of the 649 such students studying in Delhi government schools; a surprisingly low number, given that over 1,60,000 students attend the city’s government schools every day.

Infrastructural restraints, lack of special sports training, inadequate numbers of special educators, and possible bullying of students with disabilities, often discourage children like Ikhlaq from attending school. Ikhaq’s daily struggles offer an insight into why children with special needs remain outside the schooling system, despite the Directorate of Education’s commitment to inclusive schooling.

For the 70 differently abled students at the pahadiwala school, they only have one special eduator- Natthu Lal Yogi (centre). As a special educator, he is supposed to help with any learning deficit, by providing academic support and also help train, sensitize and empower other teachers to attend to their needs.

Glass eyes

When Ikhlaq was just 12 days old, his maternal grandmother noticed his “eyes were shining like glass,” said Salma Khatim, his 31 year old mother. Unsure of the quality of doctors in her home state of Bihar, the mother consulted multiple doctors in Kolkata, where her older brother and father worked. But she was unable to get a confirmed diagnosis.

When Ikhlaq was a year old, Khatim brought him to Delhi, where his father was working in an export company, and got him checked at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, but a diagnosis still eluded them.

He was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma only at the age of seven, by which time it was too late to save his eyes, according to Dr Titiyal. The only treatment is to preserve what little vision remained.

On the surface, Ikhlaq seems to enjoy school and is diligent student, but his time in the classroom has been far from easy.

One day in May, two years ago, Ikhlaq woke up, put on his school uniform and headed out of the house. He came home at his usual time in the evening, but – unbeknownst to his family, he never made to school. His mother, who works a 14 hour shift as a caregiver to the elderly, never realised that the boy was bunking school.

This pattern of truancy continued right up to August this year, when his maternal uncle visited their home during school hours and found Ikhlaq watching TV at home.

“I took a day off, and went to visit his school. Most teachers did not recognise him,” his mother said. “His eighth grade teacher told me he hadn’t come to school for two years.

“We don’t even know where he went, what he did in those two years.”

Ikhlaq would rather not talk about that time, and even said he was actively trying to forget all about it. But little details suggest he may have been bullied. When Ikhlaq was in Class 5, he had been beaten up by kids at school. They even broke his glasses. Since then, his class teacher had advised him not to come to school when the teacher was not around.

“I had missed classes when I had my surgery,” he said, “Once I got well, I missed a few more as I was not sure if my class teacher would be in schoool.”

When he finally mustered the courage to attend class, his friends told him his name had been struck from the attendance register.

“I was scared to tell my mom any of this. I did not want her to worry. I wasn’t sure how she would react,” Ikhlaq said.

The school said that they sent three notices about his absence to his listed address, and had even tried calling his mother. Nathu Lal Yogi, the Pahadi School’s teacher for children with special needs, said that the calls went unanswered. Ikhlaq’s family had shifted houses, and the letters were probably delivered to their old address.

Ikhlaq is the oldest of four siblings. His younger brother, 13 year old Mohammed Armaan, is completely blind because of congenital glaucoma and studies at a residential school for the blind in Lajpat Nagar.

Fine print

During the lunch hours, or other free periods, while his classmates flock to the grounds to play, Ikhlaq prefers to stay indoors.

“I can’t handle the dust. My eyes will start watering or hurting. Of course I feel like going out and playing with the rest of them. But I can’t,” he said.

He attends regular classes, largely because Yogi, the special educator, is too busy dealing with the 70 other children at the Pahadi school whose needs are more urgent and immediate than Ikhlaq’s.

Yet, the Pahadi School is fortunate to have even one such teacher. The Delhi government has 1024 sanctioned posts of special educators, but 257 – or a quarter of all posts - are vacant. An additional 1024 posts for special educators have been approved to double the number of special needs teachers in each school, but recruitment to these are yet to begin.

At home, Ikhlaq’s troubles continue.

Ikhlaq’s home is a single room shared with his mother, two siblings, and his maternal uncle. One corner of the room is taken over by a bed, the second has a stove, some utensils and household items, and a TV on a large trunk takes up the third. A solitary bulb casts its dim light in the windowless room.

Ikhlaq usually doesn’t study at night, because he can’t. But on days when he has a lot of homework, he sits right under that light bulb, holds his books close to his face and strains his eyes to see.

Yogi, the Pahadi school’s special educator, said that he had put in requests for large print books at least five times since the beginning of the academic session, but the school is yet to receive them.

“Our district coordinator, Mohammed Idris, said that he has forwarded my request to the concerned officials when I met him in December and has reassured us that these will be available probably after the winter vacations,” Yogi said.

Ikhlaq's troubles are more pronounced after the sun sets. During the day, he is like any other teenager his age, and likes to sip down the narrow lanes of Sangam Vihar on his bicycle.

Unseen dreams

A cricketer like Dhoni or an army officer like his cousin. That is what Ikhlaq once wanted to be.

“I wanted to do something for the country,” he said. “But now I know that it is not meant for people like me.”

“I want to be an IAS officer, a respectable government officer. But I think I will end up being a teacher because I won’t have a choice,” he continued. “I don’t think my eyesight will matter, as long as I know the subject I am supposed to be teaching.”

His dreams about playing cricket were recently rekindled and he has been asking around about getting some coaching in school. “I saw a cricket match between kids from Maharashtra and Haryana on DD the other day. They were all disabled too,” he said.

Yogi has tried to arrange special cricket and volleyball sessions for disabled students. However, the vice principal of the school, Arun Kumar Sharma, said that without proper grounds and equipment, it won’t be possible anytime soon.

“The kids could fall and hurt themselves in our grounds. They will also need special equipment, like balls that make noise so that they can track it by sound even if they can’t see it,” Sharma said.

Ajay Kumar Singh, the state coordinator for inclusive education for the disabled at secondary stage, said there is no specialised sports training programmes for disabled students in government run schools, but they are encouraged to take part in sports activities with the rest of the students.

“The special educator can coordinate with the physical education teacher to address their needs. We also have sports meets for the disabled children,” said Singh.

Ikhlaq is convinced that he can overcome these obstacles if given a chance.

“We just need the go ahead from the school. I think we will be able to manage. We will figure something out.”