New Internationalist

Learning curve

Issue 384

Latha Janet is the only blind teacher in her village in South India. And the lessons she gives are learned from life.

Photo: Mohammed Basheer
Sruthika learns Braille. Photo: Mohammed Basheer

I was born in a poor Christian family. My father used to be a farmhand, earning around 100 rupees [$2.30 at current rates] a day. Ours is a large family: I have four elder brothers, a younger brother and a younger sister.

I was born blind. My younger brother is blind too. When I was a child, doctors at the local government hospital suggested eye surgery. My parents rejected that idea outright. They feared that something would go wrong. I was the only girl in the family then, and they were very fond of me.

I attended the government primary school in my village, Melpalai [60 kilometres from India’s southernmost tip]. My elder brothers would accompany me and my blind younger brother to school and back. Other children at school were very helpful. I was attentive in class and my teachers were confident that I knew the answers. They never forced me to take written examinations. They would ask me questions, and I would answer them. Outside class, my friends would play hide-and-seek or other games and I used to sit alone in the courtyard. But I never felt lonely.

When I finished my fourth class, an official of the Church of South India’s special school for the blind asked my parents to put me and my younger brother in his school. It was about 20 kilometres from my home. I hated the idea of staying in a boarding school. But my parents thought we would get job training. Right from the beginning, I didn’t like life at this school. I missed my dad and mum. I longed to go back and play with my brothers and sister. What worried me most was the company of blind students all day. Not that I disliked them, but I was used to the regular school atmosphere. I loved fun and enjoyed moving around with friends. The special school made me dull. But my brother completed his studies there and is now a mechanic.

Somehow, I completed a year and learnt to use Braille. For my sixth class I stayed in the blind-school hostel, but studied at a regular school nearby. It was an experiment; the school authorities wanted to test Integrated Education (IE). Since I did well, the following year I was sent to a girls’ boarding school. I had a lot of friends and they considered me one of them, though I was blind. I was the first IE student at that school and studied with the help of an IE teacher. During exams, my teachers would read out the questions and I would answer orally which they would write down for me. I never took an examination in Braille. If I wrote the answers in the Braille, how could the teachers read them? I finished school with good scores.

The cost of fear

My parents and brothers wanted to send me to college. But, by then, I had developed a fear for hostel life. During my last school year, there were frequent power cuts in the hostel at night. One night, a burglar took away some clothes and cash from one of the rooms. After this incident, I was so scared of thieves that I refused to stay alone while the power was off. Some students would play pranks shouting, ‘Thief! Thief!’ Others would run helter-skelter. Numb with fear, I would sit on my bed.

The fear of thieves and hence of hostel life cost me dearly. For two years, I refused to go to a residential college and idled away my time at home. Finally, I decided to go to a day college. I was their first blind student and also the first in my family to get a college education.

Learn, then teach

Photo: Mohammed Basheer
Happy together: Latha Janet with student Sruthika Sree. Photo: Mohammed Basheer

Commuting to college in crowded buses every day was hard. Moreover, there was a heavy workload. Taking down notes in Braille’s slow pace was out of the question. I used to borrow my classmates’ notes and after college hours, I’d walk two kilometres to a young woman who would read them out and I’d write them in Braille. It would take three to four hours. Writing in Braille at a stretch is hard work; my shoulders and fingers ached. Each evening, I went home very tired. I could not do my homework or prepare properly for the next day’s classes. I had to pay Rs 100 a month to the woman who helped me out of my small government grant. My BA score was poor.

Two years after finishing college, I got married. The alliance came through a friend. My husband, William Rajkumar, is not blind. He’s a mason. He is very supportive and understanding. We have two children and by God’s grace, both have good vision. I don’t think they miss anything. It’s me who gets them ready for school, and I do everything at home – cooking, cleaning, washing clothes.

Early this year, nine years after I left college, I got a job at an NGO, Cadre India, which is supported by Sight Savers International. It was a turning point in my life. If I hadn’t got it I would still be leading a housewife’s life. For the first six months I worked as a volunteer and was paid Rs 1000 [$23] a month. In July I became an Integrated Educator with the NGO. There are three other IE teachers working for our organization, but they all can see.

First, we conducted a survey to identify visually disabled schoolchildren in this area. Then we approached school authorities and asked them if we could help these students with their studies during their games hour. This is the only time when students are free. I teach eight students in eight different schools. I teach two or three students daily in their school. The other teachers have special education training, but I am teaching from my own personal experience as a blind person. I know what help a blind student needs and in what way.

I ask my students what subject I should teach and, according to their needs, I give lessons. I get someone to read out the lesson for me first, or get it recorded on cassettes and listen to them before taking classes. Six of my students have low vision and two are blind. My six-year-old blind student Sruthika Sree always asks me to tell her stories and teach her songs. She sounds very happy in my presence. During her games hour we sit in a quiet place and she goes on asking questions about everything under the sun. I have just started familiarizing her with Braille.

Some of my students live in interior places and I sometimes have to walk to their houses to make home visits. I always take someone with me. There are always some village women around to help me out, but I need to pay them. I pack lunch for them too. I get Rs 4,000 [$92] from Cadre India a month and I pay for travel and the helper’s wages from my salary.

But it’s worth taking these troubles because during such visits I can talk to the parents. Since I am blind myself, they pay more attention to me than to other teachers. Many of them don’t even know their children are eligible for benefits like free travel on trains and government buses. I encourage them to get government identity cards for their children so they can get these benefits.

I advise the parents not to send their children to special schools. From my own experience, I know it’s better to study in an integrated school and mingle with students who aren’t blind. If all the blind students are put together how will they learn what other students do? Don’t they need to be equipped to live along with people who aren’t blind? Non-disabled students too need to learn how to cope with and help disabled students.

If all the blind students are put together how will they learn what other students do?

Recently, Sruthika Sree’s parents wanted to get her admitted to a special school, but we talked them out of it. See, she is the only blind child in her school and everybody there loves her and takes care of her. She lives with her parents now. If she is taken away to a faraway special school, won’t she miss all of them?

Of course, city-based special schools might give job training to disabled students. But what about the schools in small towns and villages? They just give some training in basket-making or some such from which the students won’t be able to make a living.

Regular schools could also give job training. Usually, there are only one or two vision-impaired children in a regular school. The government gives free textbooks to poor students. Why don’t they give blind students textbooks in Braille? I wish I’d had Braille textbooks in college. How much effort and money I could have saved! Or if I had a Braille machine, like the one we use in the office, I could have taken down notes as fast as other students. Somebody told me the other day that there is a special computer for the blind.

I am going to do a Bachelor of Education course in Special Education for the visually impaired. It’s a distance education programme. My IE colleagues are also taking the course. They have promised to help me out.

J Latha Janet spoke to M Suchitra, a journalist with The Quest Features & Footage, based in Kerala.

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