I do not have a sixth sense, but I have four working senses. I’m comfortable the way I am, and I do not wish to be sighted. Leonard Davis remarks, ‘‘The problem is not the person with a disability; the problem is the way that normality is constructed to create the problem of the disabled person.” This statement says a lot about the perception of how a ‘normal’ body should be. I am ‘normal’ the way I am. I’d request the readers not to call me ‘specially/differently abled’, or ‘divyang’, I’m just an ordinary person who happens to be visually impaired (blind). My disability is not my only identity; I have multiple responsibilities and interests. I’m just an average person navigating his way through life.
My childhood was spent in a small town in Bihar, and, despite my disability, as most may think, I had quite a fun-filled time. I’ve been visually impaired since birth. Till the age of 4-5 years, I had around 60% vision, but after an accident, my left eye underwent surgery, and my right eye started losing whatever vision it had. Since I was a child, the gravity of the situation didn’t strike me, and I took everything in stride. Surely, my ability to walk deteriorated, and my studies got adversely affected, but I was a curious child and was extremely excited to learn. My grandfather supported me and helped me navigate my way through my studies. He’d get me primer textbooks, help me read in bold letters, and explain word meanings to me. I used to be fascinated by cricket, but once I realized I couldn’t try my hand at a bat and a ball anymore, I found my interest in listening to cricket commentary. I remember I used to go with my mohalla friends, help them prepare a strategy for their game, and explain English commentary to them.
One would think that my childhood was full of challenges, and they wouldn't be wrong, but I looked at every situation as a learning opportunity. The school I was in until 8th grade was a Hindi-medium government school where kids would come, have their midday meal, and leave. However, I was extremely interested in English and eager to learn mathematics and science. I was fortunate to find two helpful teachers in my school who would sit with me and help me learn English. I used to listen to All India Radio, and whenever I encountered an English word I wasn’t familiar with, I’d ask my teachers to help me use it in everyday language. They helped me learn math by teaching me how to solve arithmetic on a blackboard in the bright sun, as I could see a little in bright light. I’d ask friends to read science textbooks to me, and even though at times I felt selfish in keeping them busy, I was adamant about learning and navigating my way through the means that suited my condition. By the time I was ten years old, people were quite amazed at how good I was at cricket commentary in English.
As 8th grade ended, my life took an amazing turn when I got introduced to braille for the very first time. A gentleman visited my government school and taught us how to use a braille slate. Until then, I wasn’t efficient at writing, and I’d have to ask friends to help me write my exam papers. However, after a month of residential braille training, I became capable of writing and was recommended to contact the Blind Relief Association (B.R.A.) in Delhi. After some negotiations with my family, I visited JPM Senior Secondary School, a school for the blind run by the B.R.A. in Delhi, and I interviewed for admission to the school. I aced all parts of the interview except when they asked me to read a braille book. At that time, I could only write in braille but couldn't read it. I’m thankful to a teacher who believed in me and admitted me provisionally. Within a month, I made myself capable of reading braille and scored 70% in the exams conducted a couple of months later. This was in 9th grade, and in 10th grade, the dynamic changed when I topped my class in both 10th and 11th.
Throughout my years at the blind school, I felt like the world was opening up for me. I had facilities I had never known before. There were braille books, audiobooks, magazines, and access to computer technology. Even though this was a Hindi-medium school, learning English was facilitated through increased access to English content. I became an independent reader. On World Disability Day in 2014, I had the opportunity to perform in the presence of the President. Manish Sisodia, the then Education Minister of Delhi, awarded me the Indira Award. I also received a letter of appreciation from Smriti Irani, then Human Resource Development minister of the country. I remember a teacher in my blind school who’d talk to us about life's opportunities and how college would be brimming with new experiences. She gave wings to our dreams, and that was extremely valuable.
Apart from academics, I was also interested in poetry, debating, and classical music. I have fond memories of trying to understand Ghalib with my friends, and I still cherish the joy we used to get when we’d understand something correctly, at least contextually. I got introduced to Rekhta and got better at both Hindi and Urdu poetry. I used to write Shayari and sing Qawwali and folk songs with fondness. I actively participated in and won prizes in poetry and debating competitions, both with the visually impaired and the non-disabled. The General Secretary of the B.R.A., K.C. Pandey sir, always motivated us to dabble in new activities. Taking his advice, I started learning the Japanese language and became one of the first visually impaired people to get a diploma in Japanese from DU. I cleared two levels of an international exam for Japanese and am currently coordinating the Japanese group at B.R.A. My childhood fascination with cricket got a second chance when I was introduced to blind cricket, and I couldn’t have been more elated. I fondly remember reveling when the Indian Blind Cricket Team won the World Cup after defeating the Pakistani team in a match.
My life took another interesting turn towards the end of the 12th grade. Throughout school, I consistently performed at the top of my class and was confident of being selected for Hindi Honours through the 12th-grade board exams. It came as a shock to everyone when my name was not among the top 10 students because I had not scored up to the mark in Hindi. Upon re-analysing the exam, I found that there had been some discrepancies between the scribe and the examiner. Consequently, English Honours was the only viable option open to me. I joined English Honours at Ramjas College, DU. In retrospect, this was a blessing in disguise, as I had yet to discover my passion for English literature. I overcame the initial challenges I faced due to my Hindi-medium schooling. As I read and learned various theories, including those of Marxism, feminism, and disability studies, my perspectives broadened. I believe the careful study of good literature shapes people's thoughts and pushes them to think about the world in a novel manner.
Once I joined my undergraduate program, the dynamics changed. While in my blind school, all my peers were visually impaired; I realized a barrier existed between the rest of the kids and me in college. It got difficult to make friends as I had to battle preconceived notions that are well established in society. I saw that the educational facilities weren’t equipped enough to include the visually impaired. I had to specifically ask teachers to provide me with the study material and read out whatever they had written on the blackboard. Around this time, an urge for activism started growing in me organically. I became conscious of my condition and started asking questions. My hostel warden would interrogate me when I’d bring friends over to help fill out forms. I realized that if I didn’t speak up, nothing would change for not only me but for the entire disabled community. I started steering activities for the Enabling Unit in my college, a body that used to work to assist and assimilate the disabled by tapping into assistive devices and inclusive methods. In my perception, I was just doing my part in letting those around me know that I was an equal student, and I wasn’t asking for charity but simply for access to things that were taken for granted by the rest of the people.
My activism journey reached its pinnacle around 2020, during the COVID lockdown, when Delhi University announced open book examinations for the finals of my master’s degree. This turned out to be an extremely unfair step as we were all at home and couldn’t access scribes or braille books. I raised a voice against this inconvenience and was at the helm of the movement. Throughout my journey, I’ve realized that I have to be an activist all the time in order to bring changes at the grassroots level. I feel that my community isn’t only a ‘blind’ community but rather a group of wholesome people with different interests. I wanted to extend this perception to the general society, to break their assumptions regarding the disabled, so that they stop seeing the community as people who only need ‘help’, but as equal members of the society, with capabilities and interests like anyone else. I wanted people around me to be able to have a genuine conversation with me, to be friends with me without any barriers or hierarchies.
The most moving part of my activism journey began when I became associated with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Delhi. After completing my Master's degree from St. Stephens, DU, I had the comfortable option of staying there for my PhD as well. They had an ‘Enabling Unit’ for the disabled, and I had contacts in the visually impaired community there. I had heard that none of my visually impaired seniors had been accepted into IITs just because they weren’t ‘eligible’. Nonetheless, I decided to try my luck with the IITs and applied to IIT Delhi, IIT Madras, and IIT Bombay. Fortunately, I got selected for all three of them. Once I chose IIT Delhi, I was shocked to learn about the absence of any establishment to aid the disabled. The academic websites, IIT Delhi webmail, academic curriculum, and infrastructure were all inaccessible to me. The problem intensified when things shifted to online mode during COVID. I started searching for people to contact and wrote an email to everyone I could think of. Initially, my emails weren’t responded to, but eventually, my supervisor, Dr. Simona Sawhney, took notice and forwarded my email to Prof. Reetika Khera. Following this, she promptly took the initiative to discuss the matter with me and got me in touch with BSW. We brainstormed together and came up with the idea of setting up the Office of Accessible Education. I utilized my experience with the Enabling Unit at DU and was at the forefront of the establishment of the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). The infrastructure here wasn’t accessible for the visually impaired, for which I recently met with the Director. We also discussed web accessibility and the setting up of the ODI (Office of Diversity and Inclusion) office. These are some of the structural changes that I aim to bring about.
‘And Miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’
I find solace and encouragement in this line from a famous poem by Robert Frost. I have faced numerous setbacks and hurdles, which have given me the strength to keep going and fighting back. It’s not that one evolves in isolation, and it’s not that only one’s individual achievements are all that matter. Along the way, I’ve realized that the more I worked for others, the more it boosted my morale and gave impetus to my achievements. Whatever setbacks I’ve faced, I’ve always looked for silver linings in them. Whenever I’ve lost hope, all the things I’ve changed have flashed in front of me, making me believe that actions have results and that something is better than nothing. I couldn’t pursue Hindi Honours, but it eventually opened a whole new world of ideas for me. I wanted to do a master’s from JNU, but I got St. Stephens instead, which also turned out to be an enriching place for me. When I entered IIT, I got Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), which was a huge achievement. This year, along with my PhD, I interviewed to become an assistant professor and got selected as one of the youngest assistant professors at the age of 25 at DU. I have presented academic papers in national and international seminars across universities. Currently, I’m a member of an Interministerial Committee, Disability Affairs under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. I’m also a part of a UGC expert committee, which works for inclusivity and accessibility in higher education for the disabled. I constantly stay in touch with the OAE here and the Enabling Unit at DU.
Back at home, I’m regarded as someone who helps the PwDs, and I have also received some media attention. I have supported some kids from my district and got them admitted to good schools in Delhi and have also helped establish a school in Bihar.
During my early years, I used to consider blindness solely from the perspective of the sighted. I inherited the societal notion that naturally privileges the sighted, labeling blindness as a state of ‘lacking’ something essential. As I grew up, I started questioning these assumptions and talking to people around me to better understand the social stigma associated with disability. I realized that the disabled are historically perceived as having ‘damaged’ bodies, as people who only ‘need’. I realized that this was the society I had to live in, and I took it upon myself to break these barriers and explain to people that I wanted to be perceived as one of them. I always encourage those around me to ‘ask’, and not ‘assume’. If one is curious about blindness, I’m very happy to talk about the subject. Questions don’t hurt, but ignorance and assumptions do.
I’ve talked to disability scholars and dived into disability studies, and my research is about the idea of blindness and vision in culture, literature, and language. This entire process has been a journey of self-exploration, and it has wholly metamorphized my perception of myself and my visual impairment. Society and popular culture understand and often portray blindness as a lack of sight. This notion of blindness being a lack of sight has been propagated by the sighted who have never experienced blindness. I urge people not to have these fixed presumptions about the disabled. A person is not defined by their disability but rather by their diverse ideas and interests.
Shakeel Azmi says:
‘Paron ko khol, zamana udaan dekhta hai,
Paron ko khol, zamana udaan dekhta hai,
Zameen pe baithke kya aasmaan dekhta hai’
These words give me encouragement and an invitation to be active. Had me and my family accepted that I couldn’t live a fulfilling life, had we not navigated through alternate ways for me to pursue my dreams, nothing would’ve happened. I might have ended up begging or singing on the streets. I believe, agar hausla ho, toh kuch bhi haasil kiya jaa sakta hai.
Andar se insaan toh same hiii hai, aap bahar se kapde alag pehen lo, disability ho sakti hai, let’s say physically, different ways in which a body can function. Blindness hai, ek sense gadbad hai, baaki toh perfect hai.
I urge the readers and society to prioritize what a person stands for over everything else. I believe that irrespective of assumptions and outward perceptions, the only thing that really matters is who the person is.
Written by: Gauri Agarwal
Graphics by: Ayush Gupta