Visual impairment: Became blind at 15 years
He plays cricket, goes on mountain treks, works with TATA Steel, studies and teaches computer applications, goes to the gym in the evening after work and then, at home, plays with his four-year-old daughter. Sounds like an average adventurous bourgeois Indian family man, doesn’t he? He is, only with one exception. Atul Sahay lives his life without seeing what he is doing.
Born in northern Bihar, Sahay moved with his parents to the North-eastern region of India as a child. During his school years, Sahay developed eye-related problems that resulted in loss of vision in one eye when he was just 15 years of age. However, that did not hamper him from graduating in Economics from a university in Shillong.
The loss of his second eye, during college, may have come as a shock to the rest of the family but not to Sahay, who was ready for the worst. “I was ready for blindness even before they removed the bandages from around my eyes,” he recalls with a slight smile. As he had not learnt Braille at the time, Sahay used audiocassettes for his study material. He also devised innovative methods, such as drawing diagrams with wires and pins on a pin board, as an aid to remembering things!
During his youth, Sahay was involved with various social activities and voluntary work, during the course of which he met several visually challenged people. It was the courage and determination of those people that taught this young student a lesson he would never forget. “After losing my vision, I had very little time to get rehabilitated. I remembered all those blind people I had met and told myself that if they could do it, so could I.” He adds with pride, “I was the first blind student to complete a postgraduation degree from North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.”
Sports, studies and extracurricular activities in college were definitely a challenge after losing his sight, but friends, teachers and well wishers always provided encouragement and support. “My teachers initially had reservations about me; after seeing my ability, they treated me like a normal student,” Sahay reminisces. “My friends would not tolerate me sitting in a different room to write my exams. They included me in everything as though nothing had changed.”
The real test of his ability came after Sahay finished college. He joined TATA Steel as an officer in 1992, and began his steady climb upwards. In 1997, he was promoted to the post of a Senior Officer and became an Asst Manager in 2000. In 1998, on a trip to Bangkok, Sahay had come across JAWS for Windows, a software that changed his life. It revolutionised the way he communicated with the world at large. From that point on he used JAWS (for communicating electronically and accessing/creating digital texts) and a scanner in conjunction with OCR for all his reading material. He felt he was now fully equipped for his job.
The turning point in his career came in 2001 when the company assessed its employees in a development workshop. The visually disabled Asst Manager was assessed on the same level as his non-disabled colleagues, and his performance was way ahead of most of them. He was found to possess all the 13 managerial competencies that the officers were tested for, with highest score of 4.5/5 on ‘Learning Ability’. Out of turn, Sahay was promoted to the prestigious post of Unit Leader, Information Training and Communication!
“People knew I could work hard but it did not occur to them that I could excel. With the introduction and implementation of Performance Ethics, many of my seniors became juniors overnight,” he adds with pride. Sahay’s climb did not stagnate there.
His outstanding performance and continual growth won him great repute from his employers. In 2003-04, he was one of 30 employees selected by TATA Steel to study for an Executive Diploma in General Management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. Sahay passed with a noteworthy grade – the first blind person in the country to do so.
For his management education at XLRI, he was allowed the use of a laptop and had all his study material scanned and saved on it. That gave him the liberty to access any material at any time, while the other students had to research libraries and study material for information.
How does he deal with his clients? The same way any one else would. “People don’t question my ability.”
In 1993, when Sahay was offered accommodation by TATA Steel, he – for personal reasons – preferred the first floor of a building to the ground floor. His colleagues felt that a ground floor would be “safer” for him. To change such perceptions, Sahay rallied forth to prove himself again, this time without books. His adventurous spirit lured him to the Himalayas, and he went on four treks, each of which was 13,000+ feet above sea level. “People felt that I couldn’t climb to the first floor safely, so I climbed the Himalayas to show that human potential knows no bounds,” he says, with tongue firmly in cheek.
Excellence, toughness and competence characterise Sahay at work and on the mountains, but not when he’s playing with his four-year-old daughter. A family man, Sahay draws his strength from his encouraging wife and loving daughter. His parents are proud of their son and provide all the needed support a family can give. His family is his world.
Today he is an external auditor for ISO 9001, and Business Excellence Assessor at TATA Steel. His honorary assignments include responsibilities such as Vice President of the All India Chess Federation for the Blind, Honorary Secretary of Association of Cricket for the Blind (Eastern and North-Eastern zones), and Honorary Director, National Association for the Blind (Eastern India). But life does not stop there for him. He has travelled to many parts of the world, acquainting himself with best practices and methods to attain his goal. “We need to work hard to make a mark in this world. We must deliver. Society thinks us incapable of productive work. We have to prove ourselves and nothing comes without hard work.” Emphatically spoken by one who has lived it out himself.
His dream? To bring the latest and the best in computer software to the several million visually challenged people in India. Sahay believes that the world of computers has a lot to offer to blind people in India. With the help of technology, a visually challenged person can access information and education, and carve out his lifestyle in a mainstream world. Sahay hopes for a technological revolution that would redefine life for a sightless person.
For a man who has carved a niche for himself in mainstream society, the fulfilment of this dream would be an ultimate source of satisfaction.