Living with visual impairment is a harsh reality for many of the families in suburban Tiruchi’s Gandhi Nagar colony. But the hope of a better tomorrow keeps them going

Sarvesh is being carefully cleaned after a toilet break by his mother Vijaya Nirmala in front of their house with mugs full of water. His elder brother Sadasivam is busy picking up a fight with his pals when his father Selvam goes looking for him. What distinguishes this average family from the next is that all its members are deprived of sight.

Established as a residential colony for the blind as part of the Indira Awaas Yojana over 10 years ago, Gandhi Nagar, in Nagamangalam (off the Alampatty Road), consists of small-sized concrete structures that just barely fit the definition of a house.

In most homes, cobwebs festoon the walls, as mini television sets sit unwatched on plastic chairs. Children run in and out of each other’s homes at mid-day, some stalked by blindness, others born with eyesight.

Selvam talks about his life – his growing up in Karur with two sighted sisters, and his widowed mother who decided to educate him. Inspired by a social worker, Selvam’s educational journey started in Manapparai and Perambalur, where he completed his school education. Today, the M.A, M.Phil (National College, Tiruchi) and B.Ed (St. Mary’s College, Katpadi) graduate sells incense sticks and phenyl for a living.

“If I get a job, I’d leave this business,” says Selvam, “I studied because I thought I’d be able to get employed in an office in the future.”

Most of the men in the colony are incense stick sellers – they purchase their stock from the Big Komala Street in the city and then fan out across the state hawking their wares with the help of ‘normal’ (sighted) guides.

“We use our rail passes or go by bus to all sorts of places,” says Selvam. “In a week I visit Salem, Pondicherry and Tiruvannamalai.”

Search for dignity

“The culture of giving handouts to visually impaired people has made it very difficult for them to lead a dignified life,” says Kala Arputhasingh, a Mission to the Blind social worker who has been visiting Gandhi Nagar for 13 years now. “Most blind people would like to be gainfully employed like any able-bodied person, but they don’t know how to go about it. Selling incense sticks alone is not the answer.”

It is a rather strenuous way to make a living, agrees Shahila, a partially sighted woman whose husband Muthukumar is also an incense stick seller. “My husband’s right shoulder is nearly dislocated because of the 10-20kg canvas bags of stock that he has to carry on his journeys,” she says. “The able-bodied guide will just point out the stores and stand by. Even though his work is much lesser than my husband’s, he gets a half of the earnings.”

Shahila and Muthukumar’s two daughters have normal eyesight, which somewhat eases their situation socially and financially.

“Many parents don’t like to talk about their blind children in public,” says Beulah Kovilpillai, Selvam’s neighbour. As a fact-finding field worker for the Mission to the Blind, and visually impaired since birth, Beulah says she has often come across blind children confined by their parents at home, in very inhumane conditions.

“The awareness about rehabilitation is still very low in our villages,” says the feisty 30-something school graduate whose husband Mohanraj, also blind, weaves chair seats.

She has recently returned to work after she was hit by a passing vehicle and laid up in bed for several months.

Survival skills

Beulah says the most important survival skills a visually impaired person needs are orientation and mobility. “I have worked in Bangalore at an export company, and also moved around on my own in cities like Tirunelveli, Madurai, Chennai and Tiruchi. Even now, I walk back from the main highway to Gandhi Nagar after 9 p.m. alone. Not many blind women are willing to give themselves a chance at self-reliance,” she says.

“I am not bothered by the fact that I have to walk past a graveyard every day to get home – many of the women refuse to step out because they are afraid of such things.” Job reservations and welfare schemes for the visually impaired face unexpected hurdles, says Kala. “Even if we are willing to employ them, they have to take at least two buses to reach their workplace because their homes are in such remote locations. So while companies may grant jobs, they may not want to spend extra on a transport system for blind workers,” she says.

The high-speed traffic on the highway is yet another deterrent to Gandhi Nagar’s residents, who risk getting knocked down or even killed in road accidents.

Banking on education

Education for the visually impaired is their best bet at joining the mainstream. Selvam, and some 30 others like him in Gandhi Nagar are now busy attending coaching classes aimed at clearing the Teachers Eligibility Test (TET) entrance exams that will give them a shot at government jobs.

“The pass percentage for normal and blind candidates is the same, even though we have only the audio lessons to prepare for the exams,” says Selvam. “I wish they’d give us a little leeway in marks and make allowances for the time we lose in dictating our answers to a scribe during the exam.” He is planning to send Sadasivam to school in Chennai so that he can get a head start on living with his impairment.

“Of course we will miss him when he is away, but I spent most of my early years in hostel too. Once he makes friends, he’ll be okay,” says Selvam. “It may seem cruel, but competitive exams are actually teach the visually impaired the potential benefits of being educated,” says Kala. “We often counsel blind people to study and acquire some vocational skills so that their children wouldn’t have to say ‘my parents were beggars.’”