In-sight into the dark world (article published in DNA News paper – 1st Jan 2012)

We are very casual about the power of our sight till we are forced to engage in a ‘Dialogue in the Dark’. Think of those blind persons who have trained themselves to perform various tasks efficiently. Give them an opportunity to earn a livelihood, says Sonali Kothari.

I have a weakness for colours. My rooms’ walls are coloured in olive greens, sensuous greys and melting blues. I spent hours choosing the tones and shades that should surround me.
Sometimes I wonder what life could be without colours. And during my visit to Hyderabad, I had one such mind-shattering experience.
I took an exhibition tour called, Dialogue in the Dark. It was a trip in darkness to explore the power of our five sense organs by shutting out one of them – the sense of sight. It was a test to experience our surroundings by comprehending sounds, touch, smell and tastes. We had experienced guides to help us with navigation. We entered a zigzag pathway from light and gradually and slowly to complete darkness. And then the dialogue began.

“Feel the wall on your right and follow it up the slope and turn along with it. Can you feel the objects around you?”
“Oh! Where are we? In a forest? A park?”
“You’re right! We are in a garden. What can you smell?”
The garden was lined with bamboos, and potted plants — roses and jasmine; there were stones — big ones, here and there; the sound of water flowing nearby. Our guide showed us the way perfectly. We were thankful that at least someone had the vision to see in the dark.

“What sound is that?” It smells like water!”
“Yes, this is the sound of water.”
“Where are we going?”
“Hey, touch this – what do you think this is?”
“Seems like a boat.”
“Yes! It is a boat.”
“Now, we will take a boat ride to the other side.”

The exhibition triggered a series of questions about matters that held no priority in my life till now. Every new question suddenly seemed much too relevant in these times to be ignored.

A good eye is such an overpowering sense organ that it dims the powers of the other sense organs. At times, ironically, limits our vision.

The experience led me to Poona Blind Men’s Association’s Technical Training Institute (TTI) in Pune. Located in one forgotten corner of the city, this is home to visually challenged students from all over Maharashtra. It is interesting to see that most of the students use Microsoft Office as efficiently as any of us do and use cellphones with equal ease. They are trained to use computers and are taught physiotherapy, music and stenography. But lack of accessibility and acceptance is keeping them away from joining their so-called biologically abled counterparts.
TTI’s chief executive officer Dr Homiyar Mobedji, who is also a physiotherapist, feels that the demotivation and disinterest that has set in among the inmates is partly due to the feeling of rejection and pity that they face in public.

The physically challenged are in the minority. Why would someone invest thought and money in designing infrastructure to cater to this population? How does it matter if these people do not show up in public spaces, theatres or restaurants? How many of us are ready to get a massage done by a blind physiotherapist? How many of us have ever imagined that there could be a visually impaired person with equal competence for a particular job?

The time has come for inclusive design of the world around us. In the West, a lot of progress has been made in terms of accessibility. Traffic signals with audio enhancements, ramps in public places, differentiated use of textures, providing railings and edge cues are some of the things that have helped liberate this section of society.

According to a WHO report, out of the 45 million visually challenged people in the world, over 33.3 million are from developing countries of which, nine million are from India.

It is time that we realise that these young people are capable of contributing to society much more than they are perceived to be dependent on it. It is time that we are ready to meet a visually challenged physiotherapist, a receptionist or a shop-assistant working as efficiently as anyone else.

For me, Dialogue in the Dark became an enlightening experience only by the assistance of the visually challenged escorts at the exhibition.

(Sonali Kothari is an assistant education manager at The Akanksha Foundation, Pune, and founder of ‘Innishari’- Do you remember!)

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