(Mr. Javed Ahmad Tak, 37, was born in Bijbehara in the Anantnag district. He received his schooling from Government schools in Bijbehara, and his B.Sc. degree from the Government Degree College in Anantnag. Unfortunately, at the age of 21 he became a victim of a terrorist bullet which hit his spine and disabled him for the rest of his life. However, he overcome mental and physical odds to complete his Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Kashmir, and also completed certificate courses in Human Rights and Computers from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). Although wheel-chair bound, Mr. Tak is recognized as a leader who has relentlessly and with extreme passion taken up the cause of disabled people in J&K, seeking full citizen rights guaranteed under the J&K Disability Act but never implemented in the past. He is a founder-member of numerous NGO's dealing with issues and sensitizing public about challenges faces by physically handicapped people in Kashmir. He has received numerous awards and citations for his selfless work and has attended numerous workshops on disability rights around the country.)
Can’t You See!
On 4th January hundreds of people gathered at the Press Enclave in Srinagar to protest for their rights – nothing unusual for a city that holds a history of protests except that carrying placards in their hands, this time, was the group of visually challenged people driven by an impetus to make the state government “watch” their plight.
It was in the year 1829 that the first ever Braille book was published after the name of its inventor Louis Braille who lost his eyesight at the age of 3. It was his gift to thousands of people around the world to feel the joy of reading despite being blind. Today, the Braille, Daisy Formats, audio software integrated with Information communication technology [ICT] has carved a less difficult road for the blind people to read and write. However, that road has been unable to reach the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir where on the occasion of International Day for the Rights, in spite of celebrating the day, the disabled community is carrying out protests for simple demands like introducing Braille in schools and making public places blind friendly by installing Braille sign boards.
As per Census 2001, out of the total 3,02,670 disabled persons in J&K, 2,08,713 face visual disability. The 2011 census report on disability is expected to be more alarming and astonishing. The ten years of hard work invested by WHO in the global initiative "Vision 2020: the Right to Sight" to achieve zero blindness up to the year 2020, seems to hold no good in J&K where there is an overall paucity of eye hospitals. The Situation is worst in the interiors where hospitals and primary health centres fail to serve the needs of the visually challenged by not offering standard ophthalmic check-ups. Lack of infrastructure at the district hospitals is a major drawback that doesn’t allow doctors to perform critical surgeries. Fear of heavy debts inhibits poor patients to consider private hospitals as an option for corrective medical care. They prefer to remain blind.
In a recent disability assessment camps organised by Department of Education under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funding for Children with Special Needs (CWSN) component - out of around 8000 children with special needs in a district, more than 3000 were found to be suffering from visual impairments. With each day passing by, the situation of children with low vision problems is deteriorating and they have started getting themselves enlisted in the record of blind people.
Nazima, a student of Class 9 in the educational zone Anantnag, needs corneal transplantation to maintain her vision. Since there are no separate schools in the state where Braille education system exists, she is forced to struggle with the conventional black board education and is therefore losing her sight. Except for a few special schools where a handful of children with blindness seek education with the help of Braille slates, Jammu and Kashmir is among the few states which are yet to introduce Braille technique of education in the schools.
Education is one aspect of development the visually disabled are demanding; but more fundamental is the very basic right to live, live with dignity, which certainly isn’t true of the remote villages of the state. Aisha and Khadija (names changed) hail from a small hamlet in Anantnag and today after spending 30 years of their life in darkness, both are awaiting death. “No doctor advised our parents to rehabilitate us,” said Khadija. “I have developed diabetes sitting at home. We are not allowed to go out and always face discrimination by our family members and relatives. For them we are the blind people,” said Aisha who firmly believes that if provided, vocational training can make both of them self reliant.Seeing the situation of ‘Abhinanda Home’ located in the heart of the city – Solina, Srinagar, one can understand the plight of the disabled lot for whose service this home was created. It is the only school for deaf and mute students, now on the verge of closure. Various Ministers during their visit to the place announced grants for the school but did not bother to keep track of the situation thereafter. The school compound, already encroached by security forces, is full of trenches and not looked after. A few ruined buildings and untidy rooms house deaf and mute children accompanied by some normal children from poor families. The conversion of the special school into an inclusive school does not reflect the principle of inclusion in any manner; it is merely a means of collecting some revenue to pay the teachers there. A few rooms are occupied by some blind adults who were earlier trained in Braille, besides learning how to make chairs and chalks. With no means of earning a livelihood with such out of date skills, the blind people are only fed there as dependents without any future career planning. It would have been better if the Social Welfare or education department of the state would adopt the school and provide special education for deaf, mute and blind students there.
Despite the darkness, there are a few responsible groups which have taken on the onus of becoming the beacon of light for the visually challenged people. Yasmeena, 38, of Chee, Anantnag, is an artisan by profession responsible for feeding herself and her old-aged widow mother. Today with the help of Zaiba Appa Institute of Inclusive Education, Bijbehara, she along with others, government school drop-outs, are now pursuing their education with the help of Braille system and computer education with Jaws software facility.
A rally organised by the NGO Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline along with the Zaiba Appa Institute of Inclusive Education, was an initiative to raise unheard voices for a system where each and every individual is provided a platform to realise their potential and become independent on the basis of their special talent. “We do not need government sympathy but want protection of our rights in the society. No worry that we are deaf, dumb and blind: we can sustain our lives with dignity,” says one of the protestors, clearly reflecting the respect and place they seek within society.
It has been a week since the rally and the strong voices that created uproar in the region have started fading away. Next year the crowd will gather again, probably with an upsurge in the numbers of the visually challenged reflecting how much attention the care takers of the public have devoted to the disabled lot. Donations and sympathy won’t take away the blame. The promising answer would be to provide them with equal opportunities to explore their hidden qualities. This will not only empower them but will guarantee a clear vision much needed to create an unbiased society. (Charkha Features)