For the Disabled, by the Disabled

GK
Mahantesh is an MA, MPhil in English Literature and is almost completely blind.
He went through school, college and an attempt at the civil services by having
friends record lessons on audiocassettes. His civil services syllabus alone
consisted of 300 cassettes for which he scrimped and saved and scraped. So one
day Mahantesh and a couple of his friends going through the same problem decided
to pool in money and buy blank cassettes for recording textbooks for younger
children.

From there, the project has grown into a trust called the Samarthanam Trust
for the Disabled, where, among other things, Mahantesh and a few volunteers–some
sighted, some blind, teach computer basics to blind students. Mindtree promoter
Ashok Soota, is one of its trustees. All the infrastructure at Bangalore is
donated–from PCs to a scanner and a printer. They download a demo version of
screen-reading software from the Net called JAWS for Windows every 45 minutes
because they don’t have the 800 dollars required to buy it outright. Yet, they
are willing to go further–from using computers as a tool for the blind to
professional software training. "We actually want someone from the industry
to tell us what our students need to be taught. We can do that if we are
guided," says Mahantesh.

But he isn’t.

One of the biggest obstacles to increased employability of the disabled in
high-end, high-paying jobs in the IT sector is lack of training. Most training
efforts are sheer will-driven efforts like Mahantesh’s–with no money and
little IT expertise. Some of these NGOs need more basic things: hardware. While
upgrading systems, a lot of companies donate old PCs to schools, but mostly,
these special needs schools get left out. "Why can’t the large corporate
houses, donate their old and unused computers to such NGOs?" says Col P
Kapoor, executive secretary, Blind Relief association.

Which is not to say that the organized sector has no initiatives in this area
at all. There are a few organizations like the FORE foundation for education in
Mumbai–an organization of IT professionals–who collect old machines, get
them serviced if required, and donate them to schools, colleges and institutions
supporting the handicapped. Companies like NIIT have at various times
contributed some time, money or technology to NGOs in this area.

Yet IT training needs somehow have never been the focus. Many leading
training institutes, like the rest of the industry, lack basic equal access
facilities like ramps and restrooms for the disabled. Though some of them do
offer course discounts.

When the numbers are taken, however, there are only a handful of schools
throughout the country that provide IT training for the disabled with any degree
of organization and seriousness. Among them are the Technology Lab at the
National Association for the Blind (which teaches computer basics, some
application software packages, web designing and some languages); the Sophia
Opportunity School at Bangalore (which runs a program for mentally challenged
children at a center set up with help from Microsoft); The Blind Relief
Association’s computer education cell (set up by the Times of India Group).

These are, again, isolated initiatives and quite obviously not enough. If the
employability needs of the disabled have to be addressed, training is one of the
most crucial issues that will have to be tackled first.

Sarita Rani, in Bangalore and Meghna Sharma, in New Delhi

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