Vandana Gupta at a vocational training centre run by the Blind Relief Association in New Delhi on Thursday. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
Pradeep Jyoti Gogoi, 24, is not comfortable with his name. The problem, he says, is Pradeep means lamp and Jyoti means light, and he is completely blind. “I do not like people asking my name, which is opposite to the reality of my life. It is darkness, not light, that defines me,” he says, as he folds a paper into a carry bag.
After few seconds, he speaks again. “When I tell people my name, generally there are no more questions, no further inquiry into my life. People are left speechless,” says Pradeep, his face pensive. He says he suffered from a retinal degenerative disease and lost vision at 15.
“I cannot blame my parents for giving this name. I was not born blind. I read , wrote, played football, saw all colours of life,” says Pradeep sitting at the end of a large table inside a high-ceiling hall where a multi-skill vocational training centre is run by The Blind Relief Association, a 73-year old non-governmental organization in Delhi.
The ground floor of the multi-skill training centre, divided into different sections, has hundreds of big plastic baskets filled with candles, paper products, cloth accessories made by the visually impaired. And they are selling like hot cakes at the Diwali Bazaar, one of the city’s most popular festival markets, at the Blind Relief Association’s campus.
There are about 30 youngsters at the paper products training section, both boys and girls, some of them wearing dark glasses; most, like Pradeep, fully blind, and some partially sighted.
The students learn to make candles, paper products, cloth accessories which are sold at the association’s popular Diwali Bazar. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
Diwali, the festival of light, brings a curious mix of memories and feelings to the 400 visually impaired people—children and adults—who live in the sprawling 2-acre campus of The Blind Relief Association, which also runs the JPM senior secondary school for the blind and a college that imparts a bachelor’s degree in special education.
For Arun Kumar Lohra, 18, who lost sight at 12 , Diwali is the only time that reminds him of a life that once was full of light. He says he was in the fifth class when one day he felt a loss of vision, and within the next couple of days went completely blind.
“Suddenly, my world turned dark. It took me a couple of months to come to terms with my blindness. Diwali is one day when I wish I could get back my sight. I used to have lots of fun with my friends, lighting candles, bursting crackers,” says Lohra.
“It is particularly difficult when you remember it all, the world with all its colours,” he says. Lohra who could only study up to Class 5, wants to be a computer operator.
The campus is full of the stories of blind children and youngsters determined to reclaim their lives after the loss of vision that left them a world without shades, shapes and shadows, a world where the sound and touch are the only signs of life.
Karan Singh, 19, who lost sight when he was 3, says he wants to be a Collector. He will be appearing for Class 12 UP Board examination in February. He has studied through audio CDs and will write examination with the help of a writer. He says that he had developed poor vision in his eyes and his parents took him to a doctor, a quack, at Sitapur.
“He put some medicine in my eyes and bandaged them. My parents says when I opened my eyes, I could not see anything. I had become blind,” he says. Talking of festival of lights , he says , though he cannot see the light, he can feel the gaiety and the celebrations. “At times my brother helps me light a few crackers, I love the rockets,” says Karan, who will be going to his native Faizabad for Diwali. “I go alone, asking, touching and feeling my way, though it is humiliating at times.”
At the training centre, they learn how to make bags, candles for the festival. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
In fact, not many students—mostly from the underprivileged sections of society — know the real reason for their impaired vision. Ravindra Singh Kanwar, 19, from Koriya district in Chhattisgarh, says he developed cataract at the age of 10 . His parents took him to a doctor in Janakpur village . “ Doctor told us that I had cataract , which could not be treated because it was too late,” says Ravindra, who’s blind and has studied up to Class 10.
Vandana Gupta 18, from Varanasi, does not know how she became blind. “ My mother told me I became severely ill at 4 and soon lost vision,” she says. She does not want to go home this Diwali because her father beats up her mother, a vegetable vendor and takes her earnings, Vandana says.
“I want to get some job to help my ageing mother. I feel comfortable here in the hostel,” says Vandana, sitting at the table, filling orange wax into a cast at the candle making section. Next to her are several big orange candles. “I am happy that the candles I make will light up someone’s Diwali.”
In fact , not just Vandana, the vocational training centre is the place where most of the visually impaired feel comfortable. It is the place, as Gogoi says, where everyone is the same, living the same life. “Before I came here, I thought only my world is dark. But here I realised that there are thousands like me. Here together we fight the darkness and learn to navigate the world,” says Gogoi.
As many as 8.8 million people in India were found to be blind in 2015 and another 47.7 million people had moderate and severe vision impairment, according to a study published online in August by The Lancet Global Health journal. Worldwide, there are an estimated 36 million blind people. India is home to almost a quarter of the world’s blind population.
Experts feel that there is a direct relationship between poverty and blindness and in majority of cases blindness is avoidable.
Children at a vocational training centre run by the Blind Relief Association in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
Beula Christy, head, Dr PRK Prasad Centre for Rehabilitation of Blind and Visually Impaired, at LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, says that the institute conducted a study on 8 lakh visually impaired children in India and found that almost 66% of them belonged to underprivileged sections of society.
“Visual impairment is widespread among children born to underprivileged woman married at an early age. Preterm children or low birth weight children should be scanned for eye problems. Early intervention in children with vision impairment is key to avoid blindness,” said Christy.
Talking of employment opportunities, she says, the private sector needs to do more. “They are capable of doing anything, which is not directly related to sight, not many employers from the private sector are coming forward to give them jobs,” says Christy.
Agrees KC Pande, executive secretary, Blind Relief Association: “A lot of people approach us wishing to donate food. But what they need to understand is that our students are not beggars. They are self-respecting and talented and what they need are jobs, not food. Many of our students have proved themselves in various fields,” says Pande. “While hospitality industry has employed the deaf, the blind still have to struggle to find jobs.”
As we talk, visitors to the Diwali Mela walk in to see the students at work and marvel at their creativity. It is 5 pm, time for a snack break. Before leaving the hall, Pradeep approaches us, his mood upbeat, his body language much more confident. “One day, I shall live up to my name and spread light like a lamp. I know there are many who have attained greatness without the gift of sight. I can do it too.”