Turning his disability into his source of strength, G.K. Mahantesh’s life goal is to help the visually impaired in rural areas step out and join the mainstream

Having just returned from Bangalore after visiting five project sites of Samarthanam, you are waiting to meet the man whose sole life mission is to include the visually impaired in mainstream society. He is visiting the Capital, making rounds of government offices and meeting potential donors to give his organisation a “more pan-India focus, reaching all pockets, especially in rural areas where the blind are hidden, under-confident and scared to emerge.”

He walks in purposefully, navigating steps with a stick for company. Alert, witty and “all there”, he apologises for keeping you waiting. He excuses himself mid-conversation to take calls and SMS. He is on top of his communication, thanks to a specially enabled phone device that converts voice messages into typed SMS’ and e-mails. He is updated on news, too, as he downloads his favourite newspaper, converting it into a text file through the Jaws Reader, first thing in the morning.

Thirty-six-year-old G.K. Mahantesh knows what it means to live with a visual impairment. Having lost his vision at the age of six, after a virulent attack of typhoid, he did not allow himself the luxury of self pity. Seeing his spirit, his parents, too, overcame their grief and set about supporting him in whatever he wanted to do — which was to do everything regular kids did. So, although he was sent to a special school for the blind, he later moved to a regular college in Bangalore. Along the way, he picked up subtle nuances that helped the visually challenged do normal things, because that according to him was the only way of rehabilitating them successfully. It is this conviction that led to the setting up of the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled in Bangalore.

He says, “I was fortunate to receive education, freedom and support to pursue my passions, including cricket and watching (hearing) Kannada films; I wanted to make sure other visually impaired people, too, could opt for higher learning, acquire vocational skills and find jobs to sustain themselves and their families.”

Set up by Mr. Mahantesh along with three trustees in 1997 with his M.Phil scholarship money of Rs. 45,000, he is proud to see their revenue generating model being largely self sustaining. The first big event they did was a charity, screening a popular movie. Other events and cricket tourneys were their other fundraisers. Government grants and individual donations took time. Today, every effort matters and support has gone up manifold. For instance, the daily mass lunch that gets cooked for a school of 300 is mostly funded by local residents.

Mr. Mahantesh knew it was not going to be a cakewalk to get the visually impaired to step out or for that matter map them. They were “hidden” and “invisible”, more so in rural areas. So deep rooted was their exclusion and reluctance to step out of their cocoons, that he expanded the focus of Samarthanam, to include people with other disabilities, such as autism, mentally challenged, and deaf and dumb, while working on creating a more enabling environment.

Getting committed and long staying human resources has been a continuous battle. However, the organisation has grown to accommodate more than a thousand people in different projects with a large volunteer base. From a recreational centre to a primary and now secondary school affiliated to the Karnataka government to creating job opportunities via placements and running self sustaining projects on multiple sites, including a call centre — each achievement being driven by the goal of bringing dignity and joy in the lives of the visually challenged.

Samarthanam’s computer training and BPO call centres have in-house placement facilities in Hubli, Dharwad and Gadag districts, enabling disabled young people access jobs. Being a sportsperson, Mr. Mahantesh was conscious of the one aspect missing in the lives of the physically challenged — that of having fun and pushing their boundaries. He spent time playing, researching and talking to people before creating his own visually impaired cricket team. Today, the group is so motivated and performance driven that that they are constantly “plotting” how to participate and win more tournaments. As president of the Federation of Organisation for Rehabilitation of the Disabled, he is helping organise India's first T20 World Cup for the visually impaired. According to him, cricket was their game of choice because, “it required strategy, calculation and team spirit — which are big life skills.”

Once the Samarthanam building is up, he hopes to create a disabled-friendly hub where quality manpower is trained and companies/government see value in being associated with it. He also hopes to promote research and promotion of devices that can make life simpler for the blind.

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