She may have been born with very low vision, but REHMAT FAZALBHOY made the vision of integrated education a reality in this country, finds out Laiq Qureshi
Rehmat Fazalbhoy looks frail and small in her bed at Masina Hospital, Mumbai, which has been her abode for the past five months due to spinal problems. Yet she looks refreshingly happy and begins, "It's been a beautiful and a satisfying life. I have been fortunate because what appeared to be a slap on the face turned into a lifetime of grace."
Known as the 'Mother of Integration', Ms. Fazalbhoy has been instrumental in integrating blind and visually impaired people into the education system in the country. She herself is an albino and has only about 10 percent vision.
For her, it all began with a refusal for the job of an operator at Henley Motors, London, in 1955. "I remember telling a friend, 'If Henley's boss thinks I am incapable because I am blind, I would rather work for the blind'. And right across the road I spotted the Royal National Institute for the Blind (R.N.I.B.). To greet me there was a blind man, John Javis, Head of the institute. I said I want to learn everything about the blind," says Ms. Fazalbhoy.
Thus began her foray into the world of educating blind students. "In retrospect, everything seems to be in place; it had to happen at the right time for me to be able to do something about it," she adds.
Hailing from a rich family, where all her needs were met easily, a denial for this job was hard-felt. "My father sent me to London to try new avenues. I really didn't see much in being a telephone operator, but here I was being refused the job because I'm blind," she says thoughtfully.
She was accepted at the R.N.I.B. despite her limited education. She came back to India as the first teacher for blind students. Soon after her return she managed to persuade Father Sologram to let her complete her education from St Xavier's Institute of Education, Mumbai. "When I told him that I would like to be a teacher (B.Ed.), he told me that it requires a lot of reading. Will I be able to manage? That was his primary worry," she says. However, she did complete her course. "I had a lot of problems keeping up with my studies. But I have been fortunate that I had people always willing to help, in taking down notes and stuff," she adds.
Despite her training, she was soon caught up in a dilemma, for the only schools available for blind students were in Marathi – no English-medium schools had any opportunity for blind students. "I really did hit the wall, as I saw it then. I couldn’t speak Marathi. It struck me then that why not try and put such students through regular schooling. And I knew I had a mission," she says with a smile. She was working very closely with NGOs, and had come to know of three blind children looking for appropriate schools.
After visiting 30 schools in the city, she managed to get her idea through to Ms. Dungaji, the principal of New Activity School, which saw the three blind children right through their school studies. "You will be much heartened to know how successful these students went on to become. Especially Rajendra Singh, who came first in his Ph.D. examinations from Mumbai University. He is totally blind and deaf too. Earlier his parents used to lock him in the house," she says.
And this how it all started, with three students. She was their special resource teacher, their mentor. She started working full-time at New Activity School, and was made responsible for the blind students. She kept them supplied with Braille textbooks and much more. "I use to transcribe the books into Braille, as they weren't available easily in those days," she adds. During exam time, she also doubled up as a writer for them. What started with incorporating three blind children in a regular school has today become a big movement in the country.
In addition to such challenging times, Ms. Fazalbhoy has been through tough patches too, but has always managed to keep her cool. "I never looked upon it [my visual impairment] as a major disability, and I was never a bright student. And I had people who always wanted to help. But it's very sad to be looked down upon. I didn't want to be regarded as a poor thing that needs help," she says.
She has been through tough times in her younger days. "My teacher would think that I was retarded because I couldn't read the board," she adds. Her decision to marry Sultan Fazalbhoy was opposed. "Come to think of it, he has been my greatest support through out my life, with out whom all this wouldn't have been possible. Not marrying him would have been the biggest disservice to myself," she quips.
Due to her efforts, the government now grants funds for blind children to avail the services of writers and readers in school and colleges. "When you have disability, you are looked down upon with pity. But I was determined that I would show the world that I can do what a normal person does," she says
Ms. Fazalbhoy is responsible for establishing the Revenue Unit of the National Association for the Blind. "To raise funds we did car rallies, where ladies who were blind would read a map in Braille to help the driver navigate. It was very exciting because the ‘normal’ thinking is that the blind is only capable of basket weaving," she says with a smile.
"If I were not disabled, I would have never entered this world. I wouldn't have known about the capabilities of blind [and visually impaired people], who are otherwise thought of as useless," she says.
Ms. Fazalbhoy has won the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for her outstanding contribution in the world of social acceptance. "We live our life by what we earn and we make our life by what we give," she says, with due respect to Winston Churchill. She is the woman who may have had very little vision, but she had the vision to see far ahead of her times and work for the integration of blind and visually impaired people.
She is an Honorary Secretary at the National Association for the Blind, Mumbai, and leads a somewhat relaxed life now.