An undergraduate student at St. Francis College, Hyderabad, walked into the office of the principal at Devnar Foundation and said she wanted to teach blind children painting. He was nice enough to tell her to go ahead, and she held a very successful workshop. To ensure she could do it, she had practised with her eyes closed and using indents to create a touch-based outline. On the second day of the workshop, a participant came up to her and told her, with confidence, that he could draw a fish on a shoebox using just his tactile sense.
For Nidhi Arora, that young woman, this is all about wanting others to feel the joy she got out of painting, never mind that they were blind. And it was also indicative of her approach to life: she just went ahead and did things, and produced spectacular results.
Later, as a student at IIM-Calcutta, she volunteered with the student cell, consulting with NGOs to work with blind schools. Still later, in her corporate career, wherever she travelled she would find blind schools to work with, whether in Mount Abu or Gangtok.
It has been more than 10 years since that day in Hyderabad, and she is still working for the visually impaired. In fact, in 2015, she quit her job at a global software company to devote all her time to what she most wants to do: run Esha, the non-profit initiative she started when she was still a corporate citizen.
Esha began in 2005, with a simple goal: blind people should have employment options. Simple project. She spent ₹10,000 on a Brailler — a machine that embosses Braille letters on paper — and, via an email to friends, declared that she wanted to create Braille books.
“Then, in May 2005, I thought of Braille visiting cards. After experimenting with eyes closed, I realised that a blind professional could create these cards. That was followed by workshops with the help of Samarthanam. Two workshops and many attempts later, Chandrashekhar K.N. was selected as the person to do these Braille cards independently. The idea was to create independent service professionals, meaning that each one would be mentored for 18–24 months until they are able to run the entire business on their own. Chandru then took over,” Ms. Arora says.
Mr. Chandrashekhar runs the business out of an office in Bengaluru with his brother, Venkatesh, whom he trained himself. They are now able to provide for their family without loans.
An important part of the philosophy behind the things she does is that they are not about helping people with visual disability: they are more for the sighted. The visiting cards idea, for instance was, on one level, about creating a self-sustaining business, and it has succeeded in that. But its goal was to create awareness about a simple thing that ordinary people could do to adjust to the needs of the blind, like having names on their cards in Braille.
Another example is the theatre workshop project she set up in 2007, taught by the blind to the sighted, and aimed at corporate organisations. Ms. Arora sees it as a way to sensitise a large group of people at a low cost; one workshop can accommodate 25 people a day and two workshops easily fit into a day. “No other first-time experience exists like this within an office premises,” she says. “It costs ₹250 per participant. It’s not as expensive as bungee jumping and the like, but it is as impactful.”
The workshop trainer, Raju Koli, is from rural Bihar and the only disabled person in his family. He got in touch with Esha while he was an undergraduate student in New Delhi, and began conducting theatre workshops for them.
After his first encounter with the organisation, he changed his plan to do a B.Ed. in special education to do a normal B.Ed.
Mr. Koli is now an independent professional, confident of his abilities.
“The idea,” Ms. Arora says, “is to create blind professionals and enable them, and fill the gap that is left in vocational options after blind persons leave schools and institutes.”
Library you can listen to
Esha’s most ambitious project is based out of Delhi, but reaches out to blind people anywhere: the Central Library of Audio Books in Indian Languages, CLABIL for short.
The project began five years ago, with just 38 files, all of them recordings of Ms. Arora reading out stories. It has now grown into a library of thousands of recordings, in over 18 different languages, on subjects including logic, political science, history and grammar as well as other learning resources like folk songs, poetry, and folk tales. It is simple and easy to use — “The design took some time!” — not requiring much computer literacy or hours of training.
The original intended beneficiaries were visually impaired persons, who could now learn via audio.
“The user persona we most visualise is a blind person in rural India: how is he or she going to access learning and education?”
Along with this primary segment, Esha identified other beneficiaries for whom this sort of learning will be invaluable: those who cannot read English, Hindi or other languages; underprivileged children in urban areas for whom libraries are non-existent or inaccessible; children in rural areas who don’t even have access to schools; and those with disabilities such as muscular dystrophy or geriatric blindness.
CLABIL is used by educators across the country, and more and more beneficiary groups keep coming up, because audio learning can fill so many gaps in language and disability.
Targets in sight
In 2017, there’s a mobile phone app in development. And Ms. Arora wants to increase not just the number of files and the subject and languages in CLABIL, but also the partners and beneficiaries, to make it a resource for all types of information and knowledge learning through non-visual means.
It hasn’t been easy. “People still tell me to monetise the website in some way,” she says. “It is a daily battle to keep the content free.” But she is determined to keep it both free and easily accessible. Until 2015, she funded Esha from her own salary. “We also had some donations that came by; some people like Rohan Dey, who contributed an amount every month (and continues to do so). In 2015, Rajesh Dhuddu, a friend of Esha, conceived and designed Tour De Vision (TDV), an annual event to generate awareness about public space accessibility that also raises funds for Esha’s operational needs.”
Rajesh and the students of School of Inspired Leadership have been running this event for three years now.
“In 2016, India Bulls Foundation funded our biggest project. Tour De Vision gave us operational funds. 2017’s TDV has just concluded and we have raised some funds through that. So that should help. I’ll probably dip into my savings for the rest. Or some donations will come by on their own. Let’s see.”
The same spirit that moved the young undergrad to run painting workshops for blind children moves her still. What, she asks, are blind people denied that sighted people are allowed? And how can she change that?