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Living life on her own terms

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OVERCOMING THE ODDS WITH A SMILE Bhavna Botta
OVERCOMING THE ODDS WITH A SMILE Bhavna Botta

Athetoid Cerebral Palsy hasn't deterred Bhavna Botta from attending regular school and college. DIVYA KUMAR on the unique communication system that enabled her to accomplish this

Bhavna Botta's laptop has crashed yet again, and her mother Kalpana is upset. “At least now will you stop downloading music?” she says gently. Bhavna responds with a mischievous grin, and Kalpana throws up her hands in mock despair. “I give up!”

But really, those three words aren't in the vocabulary of either daughter or mother. Or 21-year-old Bhavna wouldn't currently be doing her second-year B.Com-Corporate Secretaryship at the Ethiraj College.

The slim, waif-like Bhavna was born with Athetoid Cerebral Palsy, which has left her unable to walk or communicate verbally. Yet, the youngster completed her Standard 12 exams while attending a mainstream school (Lady Andal Venkatasubba Rao Matriculation Higher Secondary School) and went on to join a mainstream college (Ethiraj College), something no other youngster with her condition has done before in the State, and possibly the entire country.

“I don't think anyone in India has attended a regular school and college using eye-pointing like Bhavna has,” says Kalpana.

Unique system

‘Eye-pointing' refers to the process by which Bhavna communicates with her family and friends, and more amazingly, writes her examinations. Using a chart that has alphabets written on numbered columns, she painstakingly spells out words to those around her by pointing to the column numbers with her eyes. She began using the chart when she was 13 (it was developed specially for her by a resource person at Vidyasagar where she studied until Standard 10 ) and it wasn't easy.

“I wasn't sure she'd be able to do it — she needed to develop the ability to think in alphabets and point in numbers. And her condition made it difficult to hold her gaze in one spot for long,” says Kalpana, who worked tirelessly with her.

That's all in the past. Today, Bhavna eye-points so rapidly that it's others who struggle to keep up with her. She's been allowed by the State Government to use this special communication system to take her exams, a scribe who understands the system to write her answers for her, and to take an additional hour for each paper. But that's it; in every other way, Bhavna's just like any other college student.

Special charts

That includes bunking class with friends and going to the beach at 12 noon with a cake for a close friend's birthday (all organised by Bhavna) or insisting on going on an NSS trip with her friends on a bumpy bus, rather than in a car, much to Kalpana's horror. (Bhavna's eyes sparkle with irrepressible amusement as she asks her mother to recount these little escapades to me). She's even developed special charts just to communicate with her friends, which function almost like a secret code language between them, Meenakshi Subramanian, a member of Vidyasagar's Disability Legislation Unit (DLU), Bhavna's one-time teacher, some-time scribe and full-time pal, tells me. “We have a lot of little secrets between us,” she says with a laugh.

At a recent conference on such communication aids (called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices) at MERF, Bhavna described the alphabet chart as having given her the independence of self-expression. “That made me realise the meaning of fun and mischief, and I found myself,” she wrote in the presentation.

And how! This is one young lady who knows her own mind. Accounts and statistics aren't the easiest of subjects to eye-point to in exams (think long mathematical procedures and formulae), and her mother tried convincing her to do something other than B.Com, but she was adamant. “Business fascinates me,” she says simply, using the dog-eared alphabet chart propped on her wheelchair to communicate with me. (Her laptop crashing means she's temporarily cut off from the sophisticated computer tools she uses, including her text-to-voice software for presentations and a patented motion sensor switch which allows her to access everything from her iPod music to her cellphone messages.)

She's even identified the sort of business she'd like to do after college (herbal soaps), and recently spent an entire day at a Bangalore factory learning the ropes. The greatest challenge along the way for her, she tells me, is lack of awareness. There was a time when the thoughtless behaviour of people — such as those who assume someone in a wheelchair can't think for themselves, Kalpana explains — used to agitate and upset her. “But now I just laugh off their ignorance,” Bhavna says with startling maturity.

She's been closely involved with activities for Inclusion Week (she was part of a human chain rally for raising awareness in the city), works for legislation on various disability rights, and is the president of the AAC Users' Forum at Vidyasagar.

That's quite a plateful for any college student, but for Bhavna, it's simply about living life on her own terms. And if that includes occasionally crashing the laptop when she and her sister download Hindi film songs, so be it. It'll take a lot more for this mother-daughter duo to throw in the towel.

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