Millennium Post

Moving towards inclusion

A blind student rushing through the corridors of the college to attend classes is a common sight in Delhi University today. However, a couple of decades ago the demographic landscape of the campus was quite different. The number of visually impaired students in the University could easily be counted on one’s fingertips. Times have indeed changed as the University is rapidly moving towards inclusion with more and more such students getting admission into the various colleges and departments. At present there are over 400 blind persons enrolled in different courses across the University.

Obviously, attempts made by the University to implement the government policy of granting three per cent reservations for persons with disabilities in educational institutions have something to do with this much welcome change. But what has really revolutionised the blind student’s access to education is the rapid strides made by technology in assisting them in their educational endeavours.

Mithilesh, a visually impaired first semester English Honours student of the University reveals, ‘Technology has allowed a visually impaired person to stand on his feet and become independent. This is particularly the case for us students as it has made computers accessible to us. Earlier, Braille might have enabled people like us to read and write, but, JAWS has made writing and reading much more convenient and expansive.’ JAWS or Job Access With Speech is a computer screen reader programme for Microsoft Windows that allows blind users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or with a Refreshable Braille display.

An Information Technology teacher was pleasantly surprised to see that a blind student in the class could handle the computer with as much skill as any other student. Mithilesh and hundreds of other students like him, with the help of JAWS, use the computer for browsing the internet, collecting information, reading e-texts, writing, and accessing social networking websites. These students are also using scanners to scan their books and read them on the computer. A beaming Mithilesh confesses, ‘Now I can write my exams on my own without the help of scribes’. But he admits that computers and assistive technology for the blind is extremely expensive and students like him are largely dependent on institutional support to gain access to technology.

In its attempt to create a level playing field for its blind students, Delhi University has distributed laptops pre-loaded with the necessary software to them. This has made their pursuit of higher learning much more enjoyable and productive. While many may argue that such an approach is charity based, evoking the identity of a blind student as dependant and in need of support, there is little doubt that such schemes are indispensible for creating an Inclusive teaching and learning atmosphere on campus.

The focus of the University, however, is not confined to service delivery and rehabilitation of the blind students. It is making sustained efforts to engage itself actively with the multiple nuances of a visually impaired student’s pursuit of higher learning. For example, while designing the curriculum for the new Four Year Undergraduate Programme, the widely accepted limitation of a blind student in the spheres of science and mathematics was taken into account. These students, instead of undergoing courses in Science and Life and Building Mathematical Skills can opt for more visually impaired friendly courses in the said subjects i.e. the History of Science and Mathematical Awareness. Teachers across colleges and departments are being sensitised and made aware of the various needs of their blind students through a number of orientation workshops.

The University even took a select group of blind students on an educational trip to King’s College, London and The University of Edinburgh, Scotland. The objective of this programme was to acquaint these students with the various aspects of Inclusive existence on these campuses. To Ranvir, a second year blind student of Delhi University, this trip was an eye opener that made him aware of the possible changes that could be brought about on the campus. Since then, he has been actively involved in his college, leading from the front in creating adequate support systems and infrastructural facilities for the blind.

The University, its visionary Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh and its Equal Oppurtunity Cell, particularly its co-ordinator, Dr Usha Rao and OSD, Dr Vipin Tiwary must be applauded for their painstaking efforts. Yet the irony is that the stigma associated with blindness continues to plague our campus. The fear, ignorance, superstition, arrogance and pride on the part of the majority of able-bodied people have led to placing persons with visual impairment into a ghetto. This ghettoising reveals the presence of a socially constructed stigma assigned to the blind community on campus who are unfortunately perceived as being different from the dominant sighted culture.

There needs to be a sense of belonging to an inclusive University community where learner and teacher diversity is seen as an asset rather than a liability.

Much has been done. Yet, much still remains to be done to make the campus inclusive in the true sense of the term. Ranvir points out, ‘The sight of a blind person on campus has now become common. But what is not common is their regular intermingling with sighted classmates.

The blind students prefer to hang out together creating some kind of a ghetto. Even the sighted classmates feel anxious and do not know how to interact with us.’ Indeed a lot needs to be done in the direction of sensitising both parties to negotiate difference without anxiety and prejudice.

The author is associate professor at Kirorimal College, Delhi University
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