Empowerment of the blind in Kerala
India’s mobile school for blind students puts empowerment on the curriculum.
Braille Without Borders uses a converted rickshaw to take a computer, printer and white canes to educate those most in need
In Trivandrum, Kerala, when blind children cannot go to school, school goes to them.
Through an innovative project called Jyothirgamaya, or from darkness to light, a
converted rickshaw carries a computer, printer, Braille slates and white canes to homes
across the city in the southern Indian state.
The scheme is led by Tiffany Brar, 25, who is visually impaired. It is part of Braille
Without Borders, a wider initiative launched by Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German
national, in Tibet in 1998. She created the scheme to prepare blind children for
mainstream education, and also runs a larger project based in Trivandrum called
Kanthari, a school for budding social entrepreneurs from marginalised communities
In Tibet, Braille Without Borders is run by the people it serves. It has expanded to
include a massage clinic, cheese factory, printing press, greenhouse, and an ecological farming and animal husbandry project. In neighbouring India, Jyothirgamaya is its first mission.
Brar had a degree in English when she joined Kanthari as a telephone operator in 2008. She went on to achieve a degree in visual impairment before taking the helm of the Jyothirgamaya project.
The mobile blind school is the brainchild of N Krishnaswamy, a retired police officer
from Tamil Nadu. It was launched as Jyothirgamaya in July 2012 to help children
constrained by poverty, disability or distance.
Brar says many parents from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are unable – or
unwilling – to take their blind children to school. “Some parents don’t want to bother
with taking two buses to bring their children to a Braille class. I have heard some say: ‘It
is not enough that we send our children to normal school?’, or ‘What is the use of
English for a blind girl’?” she adds.
Visually impaired children in Kerala do not usually attend special schools. They are
often not taught Braille or English, instead they are taught in the local language of
Malayalam through text-recognition software. “But with Jyothirgamaya, I can to give
the blind a new insight into life,” says Brar.
Jyothirgamaya has so far helped 15 people in Trivandrum. The project teaches Braille,
spoken English, basic maths and computer skills, as well as life skills including personal hygiene and grooming. Perhaps most importantly, Jyothirgamaya teaches children how to use white canes – many blind people in India are dependent on others. Brar admits that despite her education she was not independently mobile until she went to Kanthari.
Jyothirgamaya’s beneficiaries are five students, and 10 women who work for the
Varkala welfare association for the blind. One of them is Bindu, who is in her late 20s,
unmarried and learning to make soaps and candles at the association.
When Brar and Bindu first met, Bindu had never walked on her own. Brar recalls:
“Bindu was so scared to use the cane. She kept saying: ‘I will never be able to walk. I will fall down.’” A month later, she was not only walking by herself but learning dance.
As a child, Bindu recalls her parents saying she must never walk unassisted as it was
their duty to take care of her. Brar admits that overcoming the anxieties of some parents continues to be one of the biggest challenges she faces.
Another Jyothirgamaya beneficiary is Shifna Mariam, 12, who quit school last year
because of chronic asthma. Her father left when she was little; her mother works as a
laboratory assistant at a nearby medical college. In the past year, Shifna has learned
Braille and English. Brar says the girl’s confidence has since soared: “She now speaks
out boldly, takes interest in things around her and moves around by herself.” Shifna has
returned to school and continues to attend Jyothirgamaya classes.
Brar says she has been raising funds to take the mobile school across Kerala in the next 12 months. She plans to host residential camps at Kanthari in January and has been writing to parents and placing newspaper advertisements to promote the project. She says the focus of the scheme is self-empowerment: “I want to take my students out of their comfort zones and out of their hiding places to expose them to a better world.”
Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance writer from Bangalore.
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