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Opening doors for the blind

Mahantesh GK, despite being blind, set up an NGO that has helped more than 3,000 disabled people gain education and jobs.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2012 18:15 IST
Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj
Hindustan Times
Radhika Raj,Bangalore suburb,Braille

In a quiet bungalow in the Bangalore suburb of JP Nagar, Mahantesh GK, 40, is having a busy day at work - a visually impaired student needs a job, a computer-training centre for the blind needs new equipment and a young student has just applied for admission at the free girls' hostel that he started seven years ago.

He quickly writes an email - only instead of a regular laptop, his system reads out every character he types.

"It is a programme that enables the blind to use the web like any other person," he says. Mahantesh lost his vision when he was six months old, after a bout of typhoid that the village doctors couldn't diagnose, but that hasn't slowed him down.

On his right, for instance, is a printer that prints in Braille. His smartphone also uses text-to-speech software. Fifteen years ago, with Rs 45,000 that he received as an M.Phil scholarship, Mahantesh and another visually impaired friend co-founded Samarthanam (Kannada for 'capable'), a not-for-profit organisation that provides learning opportunities to the disabled and underprivileged.

These days, from this one-storey bungalow, among several other projects under Samarthanam, he runs a BPO for the disabled that employs 100 blind and handicapped people; TechVision, a computer-training and personality development centre that has trained more than 600 disabled people over the past 13 years; a disabled-friendly school and a hostel that provides free accommodation to 125 college-going boys and girls.

"I was born in the farming village of Sisiri in Belgaum district," he says. "A few months before I was born, my 30-member joint family started decorating the house, sculpting wooden birds and clay toys and painting clay lamps for the D-Day. I was the first child of the generation. Everybody's hopes were pinned on me."

At the age of two, his family started noticing that their son couldn't see. A series of treatments - including giving a four-year-old Mahantesh a 'fire treatment' where his forehead was seared with hot iron rods in an attempt to stimulate his optical nerve - proved unsuccessful. The scars around his eyes are still visible.

The first setback he faced was refusal to be admitted to the village school. For four years, he was only allowed to sit on the last bench and listen to what was being taught.

Surprisingly, that was enough.

"I started solving mathematics orally. By the time I was six, I could recite tables up to 250." He picked up English and developed an obsessive craze for cricket by listening to radio commentary.

"My uncle and I had a deal. I could use the transistor to listen to commentary as long as I called him with an hourly update," he says, laughing. His parents soon moved him to a school for the disabled in Bangalore. Here, Mahantesh, then 14, started playing cricket and persuaded the school to hire a coach. He went on to play for and eventually captain the Indian cricket team for the blind and toured England in 1998. He later co-founded the National Cricket Board for the Blind, which is now helping organise an international T20 cricket tournament.

Today, as he walks into Kirana, the BPO he started in Bidadi, a town on the outskirts of the city, the difference between a disabled-friendly and a regular workplace is visible.

For one thing, there are ramps for wheelchair users. On one such ramp, Malinath Kombi, a 37-year- old employee is pushing himself forward to shake Mahantesh's hand. Kombi lost his legs due to polio when he was four. At Kirana, he is a team leader, supervising and training a group of callers. "If it hadn't been for this organisation, I wouldn't have a job," he says.

These days Mahantesh spends his time raising funds for organising charity events where disabled members of Samarthanam's cultural wing perform.

He puts in a minimum of 12 hours daily. His phone starts ringing as early as 8 am and continues all day long.

After a tiring workday, when he returns home , his two-year-old daughter rushes forward to hug his legs. "I thought you were planning to sleep at the office," chides his wife, Geetha. She often complains that Samarthanam is Mahantesh's first home.

"I forgot to take the sleeping bags," he laughs.

First Published: Jan 23, 2012 00:59 IST