Equipping the visually challenged with job skills is a lifetime mission for P.R. Pandi, former President of the Organisation for the Rehabilitation of the Blind in Tiruchi

When P.R. Pandi smiles, it reaches all the way up to his eyes. The former president of the Organisation for the Rehabilitation of the Blind in Tiruchi (ORBIT) has never considered his visual impairment as a burden he says, as he talks us through his 37-year career in the pioneering engineering workshop.

It’s a story that inspires awe in the listener – of a man’s determination to rise above his disability and distinguish himself in his chosen field.

Born in Veeravalasai village in the Sivaganga district in 1955, Pandi lost his sight to viral fever when still a teenager. He credits his widowed mother (Pandi’s father died when he was seven) for encouraging him to pursue higher education despite his visual impairment.

Pandi went on to earn a diploma in mechanical engineering from a Chennai polytechnic. After qualifying in social work, he served with the Swedish Mission Hospital in Tirupattur for four years, working with differently-abled people in the surrounding villages.

It was to be a fortunate start for the talented young Pandi. “In the 1970s, ORBIT was running a unit to manufacture soaps and chalk pieces using blind workers,” recounted Pandi.

“When they decided to establish a light engineering workshop in response to an advertisement from the Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) in 1973, the Swedish Mission director recommended me to them. I joined as a fitter at the age of 20, but was spotted as an administration assistant early on.”

In addition to his factory duties, Pandi began to get trained in processing the paperwork – and soon doubled as an administrative assistant in ORBIT.

In 1989, the founding members of ORBIT decided to hand over the management of the workshop completely to visually impaired staff, with outside supervision. Pandi was part of the foundation committee of five staffers, working up to the post of president when he retired at age 58 in July.

A man of his experience and standing would be a sure candidate for lucrative job offers from others in the field, one speculates. “I was, and am,” he confirms, “but I have always turned them down because I didn’t want to create a business rival for ORBIT. You see, this is not just about me, it’s about the mission of giving the visually impaired a dignified life.”

It’s a cause that keeps him fired up even after his exit from ORBIT. “Engineering is not the only field that blind workers can do well in,” he says. “There is a wealth of opportunity available to the differently-abled in India, but few are aware of it.”

Call centres and data entry jobs for instance, could be another avenue of employment for the visually impaired, he says.

He gives the example of his own daughter, Vimala Maheshwari, who was diagnosed with low-vision when she was in Standard III. With timely intervention, she was able to stay in mainstream education and consistently do well in exams. Today the double major graduate (economics and computer science) is working for at the Head Post Office as a postal assistant.

“Neither I nor my wife Shanmugavalli (who works as a nursing assistant in Tiruchi’s Joseph Eye Hospital and has normal vision), have ever treated our daughter as a disadvantaged person.” The couple also has a son P.Sivakumar, who works as a vocational instructor at the Spastics Society of Tiruchi.

Pandi feels organisations should go beyond merely equipping the differently-abled with vocational skills.

“We need to guide them on how to convert their newly earned skills into ways of earning a livelihood,” he suggests.

“You have to give the differently-abled an idea of how to live independently. It is a myth that the disabled will not be able to afford the education – people who are determined to get ahead in life will do all they can to get there.”

Among the milestones in his career are the seminar Workability Asia which he helped to organise in 2011 in Tiruchi, bringing representatives from 27 disability-related organisations from nine Asian countries.

He is very keen to see the rehabilitation of the disabled move into a higher gear in India, and urges anyone in search of guidance to contact him. Pandi has written several guides and pamphlets on his work with the visually impaired and on ORBIT in Tamil, but has never thought of penning his autobiography. “I could do it, if it was required,” he muses.

Life continues at the same pace for this newly minted retiree. “I’ve had no time or inclination to take rest,” he laughs. “I’m always ready to travel, no matter how far away. On a regular day, I get up at 5am, and go for a walk. Once I’m ready for the day, I meet my visually handicapped friends and fix up a programme for some activity or the other. I also have offered to help out the new staff at ORBIT, because after all, this is our company,” he adds with pride.

He finds great solace in religion and his joint family (both his children are married and share the household with their parents) and his grandchildren Shangmugasundaram and Aishwarya Lakshmi.

Clearly P.R. Pandi is a man who rarely stops smiling.“I have never had any regrets – whether I was sighted or blind,” he declares. “I will always make my own life wherever I go and never accept anything as impossible.”