Emerging from the Shadows

    The blind do not depend anymore on charity. They have left the days of brooms , baskets and begging bowls far behind. No longer do they seek favours and are asserting their  right to medical and educational rehabilitation , gainful employment, economic resettlement and a normal social life. Though deprived of the precious gift of sight , they no longer want to spend the rest of their lives in frustration and misery . In the recent past they actively campaigned for their rights.

    The real changes in dark lives of the visually handicapped came with the discovery of Braille in 1804 which gave them access to the vast reservoir of knowledge and information. Later, the sound media opened up a whole new vista of experience , emotion and knowledge for them . These development have possible their formal education and training and lit up their dark world.

    India's first school for the blind was established at Amritsar in 1885 by a Christian missionary from England and was called Anne Sharp Memorial School . Though the school was shifted to Dehradun in 1935 , there has been no looking solely after vocational training and formal education for the blind. In Punjab at present , there are eight schools looking solely after vocational training and formal education for the blind. most of them provide education till the eighth standard and are run by voluntary organizations with help of government aid. They follow the books and syllabus of the Punjab School Education Board.

    However, the students face a number of difficulties . As there is no Braille press in Punjab , there is an acute shortage of books , and above all they  are very expensive . According to Ms S. Sethi , the Principal of the institution for the blind at Chandigarh, " A text book which would otherwise cost only four or five rupees, costs Rs. 300 to 400 in Braille . Moreover, these books take a long time to be prepared and have very short life. Generally, they do not last beyond a year."

Understandably, the blind have been demanding the establishment of a Braille press in Punjab for a very long time now.

    The only government school for the blind is the Government Institution for the Blind at  Jamalpur , near Ludhiana. Here 50 blind student receive education as full - time boarders every from first to tenth standard . The minimum age limit for admission to the first class is five years. The upper age limit is 12 years for boys and 16 years for girls.

    "Not all parents send their blind children to school ", says Mr. Raj Kumar Lamba , a teacher at the school and the General Secretary of the Bhartiya Netraheen Sewak Samaj. "They hesitate to send their children to schools for the blind because of social criticism, that they are getting rid of unwanted children . Only when they exhausted all other avenues, do they start thinking of sending their children to us . By that time it is quite late and precious formative years are lost."

    The school has facilities for regular medical check-ups of the inmates . The residential accommodation and the lodging facilities are also satisfactory. However, the food supplied to the residents is barely sufficient. Most meals consist of a few chapatis and dal or one vegetable . There is no provision for milk, fruit or a balanced diet. The government allow only 80 rupees as mess expenses for each child per month, which is unbelieveably low. Says Mr. Lamba ," There is is an urgent need to this allowance or switch over to ration- scale, if proper nourishment is to be provided to the children ."

    The blind students are expected to compete with normal students after eighth class . For this they mostly depend upon their friends to read to them from the text books . There is woeful lack of talking books (recorded institutional material ) in Punjab which are proving a boon for the blind the world over.

    Dr. Rajinder T. Vyas , the founder of taking book project in India , has been awarded the Padam Shree , the highest honour in the country , but the project's benefits are still to reach the blind in the state .The establishment of a sound recording studio in the state should , therefore , be made a high priority goal . This will enable the blind students to to listen to the recorded text books at their own convenience .

    Lately, some teaching aids like Braille maps , atlases and globes have been also developed for them. However officially no such aids are provided to the schools .

    There is also a great need for a state level lending library  so that the students pursing their higher education do not suffer from the dearth of books relating  to their subjects. According to one estimate, Punjab produce 10 blind matriculates, one postgraduate, every year. These are at present three blind Ph. Ds. in Punjab who have done their professional proud.      

    During their vocational training , the blind  learn traditional crafts such as caning chairs, knitting coats , weaving dusters and making candles , chalk and soap. Besides, they receive training in vocal and instrumental music . A private school for the blind at Ludhiana , however, offer training in some modern crafts. The school has facilities for training in carpentry  , working on lathe machines and operating telephones. Such vocational training enables the blind to fend for themselves in their later lives. In the words of  the late Henry Ford ,"If a disabled person is placed on a job which he can do and is willing to do it , he is not really disabled.

    The visually disabled in Punjab have fully understood the purport of this remark and they are demanding that a Vocational Training Centre for the adult blind be set up in the state so that they may receive training  in light engineering and other modern crafts. Undoubtedly , the blind, like normal people, have a right to work and free choice of employment that the government and society must ---

    The blind do get some concession from the government , though they are far from being adequate . Among others , they are entitled to ten years of age relaxation in government service besides the three percent job reservation for them . They do not need to get themselves registered with the employment exchange for C and D category jobs. They can be appointed on apriority basis without interviews for such jobs. Further, their letters or registered parcels in Braille are allowed free postage . They are exempted postage .