Antarchakshu, the St Xavier College Mumbai’s sensitisation project, aims to provide an insight into the world of the visually challenged and emphasises the crucial role that technology plays in making life easier for the blind
“It’s not my disability, it’s the environment and technology which is challenging,” says Amit Jain, who teaches business courses. A volunteer for Antarchakshu or ‘The Eye Within’ a sensitisation event organised annually for the last three years by the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), Mumbai.
Jain is keen on knowing my experience of the 40 minutes of being blindfolded and led through various activities aimed at providing an insight into the daily life of a visually impaired person. “No peeking”, says the volunteer as you begin walking with a cane and take baby steps towards another volunteer who is clapping to indicate direction. There are steps en route and you have to hold the cane “as how you would a pencil” and tap it around for obstacles.
Once that’s over, you try and kick a football into the goal area which you can’t see. Missed both chances. The most difficult one was to type letters on a keyboard while a computer dictated them – “better luck next time”, said the friendly electronic voice. Then came the sorting of items like plastic, metal and magnets into different bowls which was not so bad. Then identifying files, using an electronic pen which talked was easier, but the commando bridge -- where you walk on a single rope holding another rope above your head -- was quite a challenge. I chose the shorter one, which too seemed long enough. Though it seemed simpler than the dart board where despite careful instructions I missed the bull’s eye! You are also given a score card, which is tagged to your wrist but I managed to lose mine by the end.
Amit nods when I say the experience was very disorienting to say the least and how we take our vision for granted. “Years ago, I could not read good books but now I can,” he smiles. Antarchakshu was a student concept first and started as a small activity in 2003. Later it became part of the St Xavier’s college festival Malhar, says Dr Sam Taraporevala, director of XRCVC and head of the sociology department at St Xavier’s college. While the basic idea is to dispel myths and create awareness and use the event as a sensitisation tool, the XRCVC has actively taken up several campaigns for better financial access for the visually impaired, innovations, employment and education opportunities.
One of their successful campaigns led to the Reserve Bank of India notification in 2009, which said banks should “make at least one third of new ATMs installed as talking ATMs with Braille keypads…”
“We approached bankers and they realised it is doable. We showed them the concept and we developed the features for the ATM,” says Dr Taraporevala. Now the ATMs can be used without the fear that the person behind you can see the transaction. “I have a biased view towards this ATM. It has everything I wanted,” he smiles, standing next to the “live talking” ATM machine on display at the exhibition at St Xavier's college, which can be used with a headphone and has voice instructions. Prashant Naik of Union Bank of India which has taken the initiative to install five ATMs in Mumbai, says that anyone can use them and it is an inclusive design developed by NCR Corporation. More banks are coming forward to install these talking machines.
The campaign for employment has resulted in a number of visually impaired getting jobs in multinationals and other companies. Jatin Shah, now a consultant with an MNC continues to be a volunteer for the event. The XRCVC campaigned for print access which resulted in an amendment to the Copyright Law which was a breakthrough. Technology advances have now made it possible to scan and read using computer based screen readers or Non Visual Desktop Access. However, advances in technology is one thing, a more disabled friendly society and innovative education and employment apart from user friendly facilities are equally important. Antarchakshu, which has over 2000 visitors each year, hopes to create that awareness which will lead the push for a more inclusive environment. The event will be held soon in New Delhi at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.