Corporate Planning Group, Infosys Technologies Limited,
Hosur Road, Bangalore, 561229.
Telephone: +91-(0)80-8620261 (Extension 2114)
Society has a tendency to stereotype the visually impaired into convenient moulds. However, those who have closely worked with visually impaired persons realise that we are a heterogeneous lot. There are differences in the nature of visual impairments. These differences could be in the form of onset, progress and intensity of visual impairment. There are also differences in socio-economic and other demographic backgrounds. These differences significantly affect the kind of challenges one faces during higher education. Hence, a naive assumption that the challenges I faced are relevant to all visually impaired would not be serving the purpose of this write-up.
Challenge 1: Taking responsibility for my higher education
Over time I have come to believe that when you point a finger at others four fingers point at you. This metaphor means that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions 80% of the time.
When a visually impaired person goes into an academic environment he/she is faced with several challenges. It is very easy to get bogged down in these challenges and start blaming others for the adverse environment. In the long run, this exercise does not help a person to get ahead in academic pursuits. It does not also change the intensity of hostility in the environment. On the contrary it adds the dimension of an attitude problem to the already existing physical and environmental constraints.
I believe that the most difficult challenge I faced was the inculcation of the following thought: " I am responsible for my education. There are several difficulties in the process of my education. I should look at these difficulties as challenges. There are also several positive factors in the external arena which I should take advantage of."
To the extent I was able to inculcate this, the other challenges I faced became less daunting. Statements like “You can’t do accounting” don’t affect you. While such statements may be made by well-meaning people in the immediate circle, it does not always form the basis of your choice. Once you start taking responsibility for your education, you also tend to focus on internal strengths and weaknesses, while making choices about academic pursuits. In my case, I think there were two extrinsic factors, which influenced me to take up responsibility for my education. These include:
A life-threatening disease: During my tenth and eleventh standard, I had a life threatening disease. There was a tumour in my nose, which used to bleed quite often. The process of dealing with this and going through the operation for the same was very traumatic. But, it also taught me several things. First of all, I realised the value of a lifetime. I started thinking along the following lines: "A life time is a very long period. The onus is on me to ensure that I do something meaningful out of it. The first step in this context would be to ensure that I do well in academics". I also started thinking that "A visual impairment is a small thing in the context of a life time. If I could deal with a life threatening disease, I could deal with a much smaller thing like a visual impairment".
Schooling in an integrated school: I did my schooling from an integrated school. This ensured that my peer group was different from what most visually impaired people go through in school. So, I never felt that I faced a special problem or that doing higher education was out of the ordinary. Coming from a family of educated people also facilitated this line of thinking.
Challenge 2: What after academics?
There is a debate among academicians, not necessarily relating to the visually impaired, as to what needs to be the role of education. The debate focuses on three independent objectives of education. They are:
- Should the role of education be to impart knowledge?
- Should it be to make an individual a good citizen of society?
- Or, should it be to put an individual on a career path and ensure that he/she has the right skill set for the same?
I feel that to assume that the above three questions are contradictory would be meaningless, especially in the context of the visually impaired. What is the point in giving education to a visually impaired person if he/she cannot pursue a career? Unless, one is on a meaningful career path, how can one be a productive citizen of society? If only a small percentage of people have access to higher education, shouldn't they meaningfully use their knowledge for society through a career?
These questions assume significance especially in the context of a liberalised environment where most of jobs would be in the private sector. Thus, whether one possesses a set of marketable skills would determine whether one is on a productive career in such an environment.
I strongly believe that a placement of a visually impaired person is a logical conclusion to one's academic pursuit. I think the difficulties I had to go through to be placed were among the most challenging ever so far, second only to the life threatening disorder I faced. However, when compared to most visually impaired people, it was not too difficult.
One of the reasons for the relatively smooth placement process was that I went through a set of institutions which had a formalised placement service for the students. Institutions which have such a service ensure that companies come in search of suitable employees. Most of the educated youth on the contrary, have to go in search of a good employment opportunity.
During the final year of my B. Com. programme, I attended a couple of placement interviews of companies that came to Loyola (my institute). The response from these companies were, "You have a good academic background. You are also articulate. However, we can't take you because of your visual impairment. Our company culture and policies cannot permit you being taken for the job description you have applied for." At that point in time, I was not too concerned about this kind of a response because I wanted to go in for higher studies.
By the second year at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (I.I.M.-B), I had enough cause for concern about my placements, because of my previous experience in such placement procedures. Anyway, I was confident that the placement procedure in I.I.M.-B. would ensure that I get into a good company. I was among the top 10 students of my batch, and hence could be confident of my placement prospects.
However, I did not want to leave things to chance. I talked to the placement office and the placement representatives of my batch. Due to these efforts, as a special case, they agreed to allow me to talk to companies on an individual basis during their pre-placement presentations. Accordingly, during these presentations, I met a wide range of companies from multinationals on the one hand to public sector organisations on the other. The responses from these companies were positive. The multinationals said, “We believe in workforce diversity and equality of opportunity.” The public sector organisations claimed to be “socially conscious”. So, I entered the placement process with confidence.
To my surprise, most companies were not very open to me perhaps due to my visual impairment. Companies that believed in “work force diversity and equality of opportunity” did not even shortlist my application. This is inspite of the fact that most of the time, the shortlist of candidates was a rank list of my batch minus my name! Several companies that shortlisted me didn’t seem to be very interested in me, once they had realised that I had a visual impairment. Some of them made it explicit that they were not interested in me and cited “extrinsic pressures” for shortlisting my application. I must have the record of attending the selection procedure for maximum number of companies in my batch. Finally, after about one and a half months of resistance from companies and attending about 25 interviews, I got a job offer from Infosys Technologies Limited. Within 5 minutes of this offer, I got an offer from another company! Ever since that I have been working in Infosys in the Corporate Planning Group.
Challenge 3: Challenge of acceptance by educational institutions
If the visually impaired need to integrate with society, the first step would be to go through educational institutions that believe in integrated education.
However, most educational institutions in India today seem to be caught in between two extremes. On one hand, there seems to be a total indifference to visually impaired students. On the other hand, unnecessary concessions are given to the visually impaired which leads to the deterioration of the quality of input. Luckily, I went through a set of institutions, which, at the end of the day, didn’t believe in one of the two extremes. However, the process of ensuring the same was quite a challenge.
During my high school days I had very encouraging teachers. Mr. Paranthaman, (who taught Accountancy and Commerce), Mrs. Laxmi Raman, (who taught Economics) and Mrs. Trirupura Sundari (who taught Mathematics) ensured that my grounding in my major subjects were strong. The then Principal of Vana Vani School Mrs. Nirmala Krishnaswamy ensured that the infrastructure and policies of the school were conducive for my education.
Before I got admitted at Loyola College, my father and I met the Head of the Commerce Department, Professor Roberts. He was apprehensive about my joining the prestigious B. Com. programme. He wondered whether I would be able to complete the programme. However, after joining the course he and all the faculty of the department gave full cooperation to my academics. Later, when Professor Roberts gave his farewell speech for his retirement he said that me going through the B. Com. Course was one of the highlights of his career. I was in I.I.M. Bangalore by that time.
The greatest challenge came during my M.B.A. entrance exams. I did not realise this during my admission procedure to I.I.M. Bangalore. The Post Graduate Programme (PGP) office and admission office ensured that the required infrastructure and policy framework was in place for my education. During the course of my stay at I.I.M. Bangalore, I learnt that some other MBA institutions had apparently rejected my candidature purely because of my visual impairment and had even gone to the extent of chiding I.I.M. Bangalore for admitting me!
Challenge 4: Challenge of scribes
The process of writing my exams with scribes has been very educative by itself. Exams are among the most tense times any youngster has to face. This becomes even more tense in the context of a visually impaired person because of the vagaries of scribes one gets during exams.
A debate exists on whether the scribe mode of giving exams is the best for visually impaired students. I feel it is a sub-optimal solution, but the best solution for writing exams. This is more so in subjects like finance, accounting and mathematics where a large quantity of data needs to be searched for and analysed during the exams.
I believe that the performance of many visually impaired students in the exam hall is hampered purely because of the quality of scribes they have to deal with. Some institutions believe that the scribe should be less capable and qualified than the student. If this is the case how can the student give his best within the stipulated time?
In my case, the policy and institutional framework were conducive in most cases leading to good quality of scribes throughout my education. Institutions like the Student’s Services Center of Loyola College, then headed by Professor Daniel and The Readers Association of Madras led by Mrs. Neela Ananthachari ensured that I was able to give my best in exams during College days. In I.I.M. Bangalore, the research scholars used to scribe for me. However, the performance in a few exams was not satisfactory because of the quality of scribes. Such scribes were not from an institutional framework like the Students Services Center of Loyola and The Readers Association of Madras.
Challenge 5: Challenge of reading
I had to ensure that I get maximum out of classes because of the constraint of my reading capabilities. The best of the teachers used to ensure that verbal communication were substituted by their first instinct of giving visual cues in classes so that I was with them in the class.
Outside class, I used to get reading help from parents, relatives and friends to ensure that my reading speed did not affect the quantum of learning. Technology -based solutions like talking computers, scanners and tape recorders also supplemented this effort and gave me some amount of independence in my reading.
Challenge 6: Challenge of holistic education
The process of education is not merely digesting books. It is also about doing several co-curricular and extra curricular activities that give a broader meaning to life in general and education in particular.
I believe that opportunities for such holistic development are not enough in India. This is even more so for the visually impaired. The reasons for this are:
- To do what others would consider “a normal academic load” itself takes more time and energy because of the physical constraint.
- Facilities for the same are lacking or not easily accessible in India. Even where facilities exist, there is a lack of information about the same.
In this context, I realised that I needed to do something different from my normal academic load. So, in the third year of my B. Com. Course, I decided to stand for an election for the Secretary to the Commerce Association. I won a closely contested election by a margin of three votes out of the total of 141 polled. Due to the co-operation of the President of the Commerce Association Professor Carlton Young, I was able to discharge my responsibilities. I also got tremendous support from my peer group, including the person who stood against me in the election: Mustafa Lal.
In retrospect, I believe that the process of standing for the election and performing my duties as Secretary has helped me build my character. The one-year stint as the Secretary of the Commerce Association has been as valuable on my job as my seven years stint in academics! Still, I feel the lack of a holistic education is an area of lacuna in me.
Challenge 7: Challenge of numbers
Typically, society indulges in the habit of what is called “Generalisation of Failure and Individualisation of Success”. This means that whenever a visually impaired student is successful, society catagorises it as an exception. On the other hand, whenever a visually impaired student is not successful, it is termed as a rule. In order to break this pattern, there is a need for a large number of positive examples to change social attitudes. However, since the visually impaired constitute a small proportion of society, it is very difficult to generate such a critical mass of positive examples. So, it will take a much longer time to change social stereo types about visually impaired students when compared to what it took for, say, women.
To counter this challenge of numbers, there is a need for the following:
- A concerted effort by N.G.O's and other institutions for disabled persons to bring such a small number of people together. This will ensure that such challenges can be overcome jointly.
- At the individual level, each visually impaired student must take ownership for his/her education.
Most of us have a tendency to do things, which fall into the pattern of 3 Cs:
- Comfort: We want to do things which are easy
- Convention: We want to do things which are according to existing norms and practices
- Convenience: We want to do things based upon what we think is available.
However, operating purely in the 3 C mode has its dangers, especially for the cause of the education of the visually impaired. The ability of individuals and institutions to operate beyond the 3 C mode is what is going to ensure access of higher education to the visually impaired. Such a change would have to focus on two aspects: the philosophical aspect and the tools aspect.
Philosophical change: There is a need for a change at the philosophical level both at the individual and institutional level as follows:
- At the individual level, visually impaired students need to take full responsibility for their education
- At the institutional level, all facilities in terms of a favorable environment needs to be provided. However, to ensure that the quality of input is good, standards to assess performance should not be diluted, purely because one is visually impaired.
Change of tools: The traditional tools that were used to give access to education are inadequate. Better tools which the latest information technology revolution provides needs to be used.
The process of ushering this change for visually impaired students and institutions working for them is quite exciting, challenging and occasionally even frustrating. However, at the end of the day, there is a sense of satisfaction that one has not just followed a precedent but created one!