From teaching French to being in charge of bookshare.org, a project of Benetech firm, 50- year-old Zainab Kamwalla, who is visually impaired, has utilised the three-month lockdown period to help many print disabled people (those who struggle to read print due to a disability) with dyslexia and cerebral palsy ‘read’ the books the way they want to. She, along with her firm, also helped ensure that students with reading barriers at government and private schools were not affected academically by the lockdown, and could attend online classes along with the sighted students.
Motivating herself to be positive, Rina Patil (36), an official with Bank of Baroda, takes part in several social initiatives. During the lockdown, she helped volunteers with a charitable foundation serve tea at petrol pumps and police chowkis. “What was particularly satisfying was along with volunteers, we were able to reunite a 65-year-old man, who was suffering from amnesia and had been walking for seven days on the road, with his family. I can’t see but I could sense the… relief of the family when they found their father,” says Rina.
When she was 13, visually-challenged Suvidha Waghmare told her father she wanted to study in Pune and earn enough money to support her family. She left Nanded to pursue her studies, and is today a software tester at HSBC global software development in Pune. Suvidha, who stays with flatmates in the city, not only carved out a new life for herself but at 23, has utilised the time during the lockdown to work from home, learn new skills online and pay college fees for her sister, who is doing her Masters in Botany.
There are at least 1. 5 crore visually-impaired persons in India and out of 10, four are learning disabled. The lockdown is particularly hard for them as the sense of touch is important to feel their way around. Physical and social distancing due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have become a challenge as people are scared to even help the visually challenged cross roads due to the fear of virus transmission.
Some visually-challenged women like Rina and Zainab have, however, taken the crisis in their stride.
“Initially, I was flustered as I travel a lot, but these three months of lockdown have kept me super active,” says Zainab, who is in charge bookshare.org, an online library for people with print disability that operates out of 94 countries and has 8.91 lakh books in various categories.
“`The e-library is close to my heart… I still remember how, during my younger days, I had to strain to see the fine print and bring the book so close to my eyes, but in vain,” she says.
An avid technology user, the use of software made it simpler to open up a wide variety of textbooks, bestsellers, children’s books, career resources, and more for people with reading barriers, Zainab says, adding that during the lockdown, they specially ensured that visually- challenged students should be able to access information provided during school’s online classes. “We used special software so that these students could follow the teacher’s instructions online,”she said.
Rina, who hails from a farmer’s family in Sangli district, decided to make Pune her base and stays alone in the city. While she worked from home during the lockdown, she also decided to help volunteers with the foundation and travelled with them to areas like Swargate and Hadapsar.
“My family back home was scared and told me not to venture out but like others, I have a sanitiser, mask and this is my way of telling the visually-challenged not to be afraid. I have a cane that guides me and during this crisis, several persons have also helped with groceries and vegetables,” she said.
Says Suvidha, “During the lockdown, I went back to Nanded. As my office has allowed me to work for home for another three months, I am also utilising the time to learn new skills,” adding that there was no time to feel depressed or anxious. “The pandemic is not going to last forever and there is no need to get so scared,” she says.
Yasmin Beig, 34, said dealing with her blindness has not been a major issue. Hailing from Solapur, she studied at Fergusson College and works as an independent cosmetic jewellery salesperson. Her husband, who is also visually challenged, has yet to be called back to work at his company, where he is engaged in packing material.
With two partially-sighted children, Yasmin admits that at times she feels dejected but then feels hopeful again, and is confident of finding a silver lining during these tough times.