Getting into the skin of the visually challenged through Antarchakshu at JNU
Scorecard and a long cane in hand, I stepped into the obstacle course. Anoop, a student of SBDAV School, New Delhi, handed me a memento with my name written in Braille. I was then blindfolded and had to perform everyday tasks like walking on the road, climbing stairs and so on. There were seven such tasks, part of a sensitisation programme called Antarchakshu —an annual event by the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), Mumbai.
The programme, which has been taking place at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai since 2006, was organised for the first time in the Capital, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University last week. The aim behind the programme was to show the routine of the visually impaired, seen often as a matter of fact by most visually able people. Some even find it a burden to have a blind person hold up a queue, say at a Metro train fare collection window, or while struggling to count change at a store.
After being blindfolded, a volunteer explained to me, “Please hold my upper arm. That is the correct way to guide a blind person.” She led me on to a simulation of a road — its edges marked with layers duct tape. Even occasionally peeping through the blindfold, it was a herculean task to feel the edges with the cane and the soles of my sandals and negotiate the bends and the obstructions.
In the darkness of my blindfold, my thoughts wandered to Parliament Street, where my office is, and more importantly, where Parliament of India stands. The low steel railings that jut out of the sidewalk, the cables that are menacingly left protruding after they are laid underground and the bricks and slabs that lie around threaten the blind and visually able alike. The street also attracts a large number of visually impaired — to Dak Bhawan, the insurance companies in the vicinity, the offices of the Press and various ministries. The discomfort I felt as I stumbled along makeshift bridges and furniture obstacles were far less lethal than what blind people faced everyday, even in the heart of the country’s administrative quarter.
I was asked to choose Rs. 6 each from bowls of new coins and old coins. Both were difficult, but the old ones had characteristic shapes and indents for various denominations — impressions which the sensitive touch of a blind person immediately perceives. The smooth and indifferent new coins were near impossible to decipher.
While that was an example of how things have got worse for the blind — despite the advances in technology, a number of positive developments that have come about due to the persistence of advocacy groups like XRCVC, came to the fore too. These included the Reserve Bank guidelines to banks to install ATM machines with voice interface and proposed amendments to copyright laws to allow scanning of books for text readers on computers.
The other tasks at the obstacle course included typing and using a calculator. Ever noticed the dot embossed on numeral 5 of a calculator or the dashed embossed on “F” and “J” on a keyboard? I learnt that these guide the visually challenged on the position of keys. Even with a voice interface, these tasks were tough. In the course of the experience, I also learnt that there were a number of games and tools available for the blind. Popular pastimes like Rubik’s cube and playing cards have been adapted with Braille. While a regular cube uses six colours, the Braille cube is a cylinder with rotating discs of Braille numerals.
An interesting device on display was the Colorino colour detector. If you point it at an object and press a button, it read out the colour to you. This helps the visually impaired to choose their wardrobe.
True to its name, Antarchakshu opens the third eye. The course is an hour long. Half way through, you feel the fear of the unknown. You feel like the blind person you rushed with across a road or like the blind person who struggles to get through a Metro train door.
At one of the obstacles, you kick a football — with bells inside — towards a clapping goalkeeper. The satisfaction you get when the volunteer confirms you have scored is something every visually impaired citizen deserves — the goal of a level playing field.