'I was too ashamed to leave my house' - blind Indians complain of social stigma and the difficulty of finding jobs. At the same time, Kerala’s first college for blind students is set to open this year.
Four girls in colourful tunics are playing catch, jumping down the steps of their school and careering down the driveway. Half-hidden by a car, several boys are clustered around a motorbike. They shove each other as they fight to take turns to climb on the bike. When it's Sujesh's turn, he reaches out with his foot, feeling for the peddle, then he takes aim and jumps onto the saddle. The boys cheer. They will never be able to ride the motorbike: Sujesh and his friends are blind. A cheerful boy of eleven, Sujesh wants to be a film director when he graduates from Kerala Blind School, a boarding school in India's Southern state. He's planning to spend the holidays working on the script.
Johnson Joseph, the school's administrator approves: "We want our students to be independent." There are some 40 million blind people in the world, 12 million of them in India, Joseph says. The school was founded in 1962 funded with the help of international, mostly European and American, charities. Today, the Keralan government pays the teachers' salaries and for the children's uniforms.
First ever blind college
Upstairs, Sujesh is sitting directly underneath a fan swirling sticky hot air through the bright computer room. As he moves his mouse, the computer's metallic voice offers a running audio commentary: "right, left, internet explorer…" The interface, first developed in the US, will be launched in Malayalam - the main language of Kerala - next year, Jonathan Balaman, one of the teachers explains.
Two girls are listening to Malayalam pop songs on Youtube. They giggle shyly when asked what they want to do once they graduate. "I want to be a science teacher," one of them whispers, almost inaudibly, as she nervously twists her purple bangles. She's determined to go to university, maybe in neighouring Tamil Nadu. She admits that it won't be easy. "But I'm ready to face the challenge," she says, her voice gaining confidence.
She might even be able to stay in Aluva, the bustling town where the blind school is located, not far from Cochin, a favourite with foreign tourists who stream off cruise ships to admire the Portuguese architecture and file past the Chinese fishing nets. "We're building a college for the blind," administrator Joseph says proudly: "It will be India's first blind college." As of September of this year, it will offer degrees in education. While many of his students already go on to state universities to study engineering and even medicine, he says it can be hard, as universities still aren't well equipped for students with disabilities.
Quotas for the blind?
Yet despite all of his optimism, Joseph concedes that many employers prefer not to hire blind workers. He thinks the government should introduce a quota system for people with disabilities, along the lines of the quotas reserved for lower castes. His students should be able to find work in India's booming call-centre industry, he says. Quotas would force employers to give them jobs.
"Why would they want to employ a blind person, if they can employ someone who can see?" Jason Balaman, the teacher supervising Sujesh and the girls, shrugs. All he can see are shades of blurred black. When he lost his eyesight, the former civil engineer spent almost two years locked in his parents' house: "I was too ashamed to leave my house," Balaman says: "What would the neighbours have said?" He is convinced that many families still see blindness – as well as other disabilities - as a stigma, and some parents hide their children from sight.
Balaman suffers from retinal detachment – a hereditary disease that can be cured. But the operation is expensive. Neither the government nor the many national or international NGOs operating in Kerala are prepared to pay for such a costly operation, he says, and shrugs: "With the money they'd spend on my operation, they can pay for many cataract operations. I understand."
It took Jason two years to piece his life together again. Last year he got married, his son is six months old. But while he is happy teaching Sujesh and his friends, his life remains difficult: "It's difficult to move around, particularly in big cities." He smiles, as he refers to the chaos of public transport in India, it's overcrowded buses, entire families piled on motorbikes and rickshaws zooming in and out of traffic jams: "It's an absolute zoo out there," as he waves his hand, indicating the world outside of the school, as if he were no longer a part of it.
Author: Naomi Conrad
Editor: Grahame Lucas