Opening Our Eyes

The Beginning

Exiled from the world of light and colors, shut up into a dungeon of day-less gloom, looked down upon by general society as cursed for sins committed in previous lives, the blind persons of India went begging from door to door singing doleful songs… but is this present day reality? We decided to check.

We decided to visit the Ahmedabad West’s centrally located well-known NGO –The Blind People’s Association (BPA).

“They are blind, but with a better vision” was vibrantly visible across the large campus of BPA.

BPA is a school for the blind, a vocational training center, a center for betterment and healing, and a place where people help those who are very capable by working around their disabilities. Quite some time was spent at the Blind People’s Association campus learning a lot about the organization.

BPA has a 50-year history working with the blind and disabled people. They have special schools, inclusive schools, and vocational training for people with disabilities, including a physiotherapy school for blind people who provide a diploma from the University. Offset printing, Braille Printing, sewing, Braille books, bags, and standard wheelchairs are all produced by BPA in this one center. They also have school classes for severely disabled children and people who are both deaf and blind. Sense International another NGO helping deafblind also operates from the campus of BPA.

The mission of BPA states, “Promoting comprehensive rehabilitation of persons with all categories of disabilities through education, training, employment, community-based rehabilitation, integrated education, research, publications, human resource development and other innovative means.”

Soon after we arrived at BPA, we were welcomed with warmth. After the introductions, we were shown around the large campus of BPA so that we could better understand what they do. Most impressive was the Inclusive Education Training Centre, where in the name of the Government of Gujarat, mainstream teachers are trained for inclusive schools. At BPA, blind students are trained to become physical therapists.  They study for two years to become certified in Physical Therapy. They logged on to a computer and with the diagnosis of a medical doctor, administered the therapy.

In addition to physical therapy, BPA houses a beauty school and an IT Training center, along with other specialties offered especially for blind people, including hand weaving, computer courses, mechanical courses, etc.  There are specially designed classrooms with notice boards in Braille to help them understand things in their own language. Learning a vocation is primarily for the older students, but even the younger ones learn how to make and decorate gift bags.  Their efforts result in items that are sold in markets where people can order products they like, which helps to support the school.

Scale or Empathy?

I have had little contact with blind people previously. I only understood there must be teachers available as I have actually seen people with white canes navigating the streets amidst the traffic creating organized chaos.  Usually, a kind person will take the blind person’s arm to  steer him safely across the streets through the never ending honking of cars, the sounds of which never ceased to frighten as they crossed the streets. All know that pedestrians have NO rights in the streets of Ahmedabad!  At Solitaire Corporate Park in Ahmedabad, the elevator operator was blind.  You tell him a floor number and his hand goes there immediately without touching the Braille numbers.  He welcomes riders with polite greetings and a smile.

The volunteer program is absolutely wonderful at BPA.  Students from all over the world come and help at the school.  They take care of room and board and encourage people to come in pairs or groups so that they can share the experience with someone from home.

While the classroom experience was limited since school started at noon, we still got a sense from the officials of the school and from touring one part of the campus. The school, which starts at noon, has some volunteers who come and teach English, as the common medium is Gujarati, the local language.  Students have an opportunity for higher learning and job placement.  The place is truly one of a kind and I pledged to be working with BPA soon.  You come out with a different mind-set of being proud, confident over empathy.

Evolution, Innovation and Growth

India’s first ‘Seeing in Dark’ experience was built inside the BPA campus so that visitors can experience life without light just like a visually impaired person. It has all black wall paint, floor, curtains, tables and chairs, air-conditioners and fans, leaving no scope of illumination once a visitor enters the area. The facility has been constructed in the basement of building No. 8 on the BPA premises. The concept is to put visitors in the blind people’s shoes for a while. They have employed the blind in the exhibits those who would assist the normal ones to navigate with the help of railings and guiding ropes..

There’s a small restaurant where you have to make your way to the table in pitch darkness, order your food, and eat in an environment without an iota of light. You are barely able to see your plate, let alone the food items you are eating.

Here you can also experience a movie session in a 50-seat jet-black theatre, listening to only the audio of Aamir Khan (Bollywood star) Starrer ‘Tare Zameen Par’ (Stars of Earth).

“The aim is twofold, in a society where we see that sensitivities towards others are going down, we want people to have an experience of how life is if you do not have eyesight. This might increase their understanding for those who do not have it,” “People like us, who are gifted with all our organs in working condition, take them for granted. With the experience of ‘seeing in dark’, we will appreciate and thank God that all our organs are in good condition,” is what Ms. Nandani, Director of BPA, had said earlier.

The exercise in itself was wonderful because it helped us realize how the world is for blind people. Everything is just BLACK. After that experience, we understood what favor God has given us by providing us with eyes. The world without eyes is very different, very black.

BPA is an NGO that works with all categories of people with disabilities, providing them education, employment opportunities, equal rights, and quality life.

A ‘talking’ ATM with an attached headphone is also found on the BPA campus. This ATM is specially designed for visually impaired people. The Blind People’s Association (BPA) campus was chosen for its launch because as many as 20,000 blind people of Ahmedabad visit this place regularly. A wheelchair is kept outside the ATM which can be used by handicapped visitors. For the first time visitor, the ATM has the provision of a specially developed ‘Help’ section.

Challenges & Opportunities

This NGO is thoroughly run in a professional manner by a lot young people. The average age of their employees is 31 years old, which is very good if you compare it with average NGOs.

BPA is also a place for mentally challenged children and people with other disabilities. Children are specially trained by dedicated workers and is really one of the toughest tasks to help children learn as you need the world’s patience for this kind of work and a beautiful mind and heart. Only extremely dedicated and professional people can do this job.

They have also changed their donor approach so that rather than giving food to the children, donors give money and resources to this NGO so that their donations can be better utilized. They have received donations of scooters, cards, ACs etc., which they use well. Their finances are very transparent and they are quite open-minded to talk about their investment, etc. This is unique as most of the NGOs are poorly managed when it comes to handling finances. Through these efforts, they have been able to change the mindset of the donors to “facilitate” growth.

BPA runs a hospital in Ahmedabad where surgeries are performed at very low cost and have several  eye specialists working for them.

This was really a heartening visit as it helped change the way we look at life. I realize how fortunate I am not living with a disability and learned that those who are perceived as mentally and/or physically challenged are as talented, or even more talented, than we are.

What if you were unable to see the colors, the friendly smiles, and the cows and the dogs wandering in the streets? There are 15 million people who are partially or totally blind and unable to see the incredible world around them. The population of the people who have less vision is more than double of that.  India has almost 30% of the non-sighted people within the population of the globe.  75% of these people in India could be treated to see again.  It is also learnt that some 153 million need reading glasses and there are only 20 optometrist schools in India with only 1000 graduates a year. The rest of the visibly impaired people need cataract operations to restore their sight. Think how blessed we are in this world!!

Engagement

Vodafone India is one company in India that is using partially sighted people to reach out to its prepaid customers. The workers undergo training on voice recognition systems instead of Braille.  A call center runs in the BPA campus through the initiatives of Vodafone.

BPA has Charity Haat (Open Market), a concept floated with BPA volunteers, which gets donations from all quarters — from individuals to corporations.

People donate their discards such as clothes and electronic items, and the proceeds go to people in need. Charity Haat is also environmentally sensitive since it reduces waste that goes un-recycled. The haat has been established at a BPA campus near IIM crossroads. “We are getting a good response as it has grown from an individual activity to involving Corporates. Retailers like Big Bazaar, Star Bazaar and Pantaloon have also started to share their unused off-shelf clothes, shoes, etc. It is a good chance to light up somebody’s festival,” a BPA official said.

Debanshu Banerjee is General Manager of Innovairre, India. Innovairre supports 500+ nonprofit organizations around the world. For more information on Innovairre, contact us at Answers@Innovairre.com.