Opening up a world of possibilities

NGO

Opening up a world of possibilities

At the Computer Education Centre, the young man seated in front of his PC is typing out a greeting to us as we stand behind and watch intently. “Welcome to Mitra Jyothi,” the words slowly appear on screen.

We applaud. Instructor Suryakant Bhuti pats his student on the back saying, “Well done.” Seems like disproportionate praise? Not really. The student is visually impaired. For him to operate a computer and type out sentences is indeed an achievement.

This achievement of the young man and other students at the computer centre can be attributed to the result of advances in technology tailored for the visually challenged, specifically, the special screen-reading software called JAWS in which students here are given intensive training. But it is also a consequence of the tireless efforts of Madhu Singhal, founder and managing trustee of Mitra Jyothi and her team, to provide the finest facilities to the visually impaired.

Founded in 1990 by Madhu, herself visually challenged, Mitra Jyothi aims to empower those with visual challenges to join the mainstream and achieve both personal and professional fulfillment. There are many means of empowerment that this centre offers. Many of these facilities were born out of what Madhu calls the sheer necessity of the moment and also “out of my lifelong experiences with the many difficulties and challenges that people like me face.”

Talking book library

The CEO of Mitra Jyothi, a genial, unassuming man, Major A P Singh (Retd), takes us around these facilities, which are impressively clean and fairly spacious. “I am utilising my time for a noble cause even after serving the country as an army-man for nearly 30 years and that is my satisfaction,” he says.

The first and most significant project of this NGO is the Talking Book Library. Audio versions of textbooks and general books are created for the use of the blind. And it is a wide range that is covered, textbooks from Class I to post-graduation level, fiction, biographies, short story collections, anthologies of essays, etc. These are voice-recorded in different rooms built for this purpose and then circulated through the library.

Anusuya Das, Chief Coordinator, Digital Talking Book Library, tells us that so far, Mitra Jyothi has created about 22,000 audio-cassettes and 460 CDs. The library’s members include 1,350 individuals and 37 educational institutes working for the visually impaired.

Helping in this task is a host of volunteers who come in for the audio-recording whenever they find the time: students, homemakers, retired employees, etc., including one very enthusiastic 80-year-old lady!

Nearby is an interesting facility, the Low Vision Diagnostic Centre or a laboratory where a host of low-vision aids help those who are not completely blind but suffer low vision.

“These are basically powerful optical devices useful to persons with vision impairments that cannot be successfully corrected by the usual prescription lenses, by standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery, and that interferes with the ability to perform everyday activities. This impairment or low vision causes could be macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and retinitis pigmentosa, along with many other eye diseases,” explains Krishan Kumar Murugan, Systems Analyst.

So, what are these low-vision aids, we ask? Murugan elaborates: “Prescription and nonprescription devices that help people with low vision to enhance their remaining vision. Some examples: special low-vision eye glasses, telescopic lenses for driving and other distance tasks, microscopic reading glasses, magnifiers, CCTVs (Electronic Reading Machines), large print books, check-writing guides and white canes.”

A major hurdle for the visually challenged in their struggle for empowerment is the absence of adequate Braille transcripts of textbooks and educational material. Attempting to bridge this gap in its own way is Mitra Jyothi’s Braille Transcription Centre, which provides Braille copies of requested books.

For meaningful employment

The Job Placement Cell was created because the best facilities don’t take a visually challenged person very far unless they are followed by meaningful employment opportunities. This centre has helped provide employment to many visually impaired persons.

An important unit is the Training for Independent Living Skills impelled by the belief that visual impairment need not mean lifelong dependency. So, participants are imparted mobility-training (like crossing roads, travelling alone in buses and trains, shopping, for eg), home-management including cooking and cleaning, personal health and hygiene, crafts, etc.

Mitra Jyothi also arranges lectures on social and legal awareness. The hostel facilities go a long way in helping the economically deprived and/or destitute among the visually impaired.

“Today, there are so many facilities for those who are visually challenged, but in our time we had to go through great struggles,” says Madhu recounting her own problems while she was growing up. She never went to regular school till she was 14; there were very few schools for the visually impaired and also the existing ones were largely ill-equipped.

So, Madhu stayed at home and gleaned some knowledge from what she heard from adults and her siblings who sometimes read out from books for her. Finally, Madhu’s mother persuaded a mainstream school to give her admission.

Later, Madhu, who is endowed with a soft, melodious voice did her graduation and post-graduation in Hindustani classical vocal music. A career in music which has generally been considered the ideal option for the visually challenged was on the cards when Madhu decided to do something more, something not only for herself but also for others like her.

“With the help of my sister and brother-in-law and the generosity of many people like the late Kusum Kumar Khaitan’s family as well as a host of dedicated co-workers, we have finally reached here,” she says.

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