Blind leading the blind

Namira Hossain writes about the odds that the visually-impaired VashkarBhattacharjee had to overcome and how he is  helping others like him.

blindDuring a hot summer day on July 1, 1979, in a remote village in Chittagong, a government employee and a housewife welcomed their baby boy to this world. He was bleeding through his nose and mouth, baffling the parents as well as the doctors. He overcame all odds to survive and life resumed as normal. Then, when he was two years old, his parents realised that he was blind. This is the story of Vashkar Bhattacharjee.
‘As I grew older, my family was confused about whether to send me to school or not, as people in Bangladesh think that blind people cannot do anything, most people think it is impossible for them to get an education,’ says Bhattacharjee. Luckily for him, his family learnt of a primary school for the blind in Chittagong and he was sent to that school. After his primary school education, he attended junior high and high school in schools for sighted children.
His teachers found him to be a bright, engaged student, full of questions in class and eager to learn more. ‘I never got very good grades though, because there were no books available in braille that I could study – that stayed with me,’ he shares. Back in those days, braille books were the only means of education for the visually impaired but they were impossible to come by. As Bhattacharjee applied to various universities, they rejected his applications due to his blindness. This led him and a few other visually impaired students to go on a hunger strike, which is when the university acquiesced but once again he was faced with discrimination as well as the lack of facilities for visually impaired students once more.
Bhattacharjee’s sincerity was often doubted by his teachers as he recounts one particular incident when he was taking notes on his braille slate but his lecturer thought he was simply fooling around, and asked him to leave the room. Bhattacharjee complained to the head of the department and then read his notes out loud to his professor who was dumbfounded. ‘He thought it was like magic,’ says Bhattacharjee. Once again, refusing to give in to his physical limitations, Vashkar surpassed expectations and graduated with honours in History and went on to complete his Masters in General History from Chittagong University.
blind2However, his trials were still not over. Bhattacharjee realised that in order to survive in the competitive job market, he would have to go a few more steps further. He could not see himself relegated to a life of working in a menial job or begging on the streets like many visually impaired people in Bangladesh are forced to do. His vision was to make a tangible change, that would completely change life for others like him, so that they would not have to go through the same hardships he had to endure. He applied for and became selected to join the Duskin Leadership Training in Japan in 2002. This was a training program for youth with disabilities, and as he was one of 10 candidates selected from the world, he could imagine a future for himself that would be brighter.
He came back to the country, armed with knowledge in leadership, technology and creating digital access for people with disabilities. Upon returning, he found it difficult once again to find employers who were willing to have him on board, and so he worked voluntarily. His confidence in himself was evident, ‘I wanted to prove that disabled people can work in our job market, nobody wants to believe in people like me.’
He started by working on creating a computerised Braille production, which allows for printing to be in done in Braille, thus creating the tools for education for the visually impaired and books that did not previously exist. Within six months, he was earning a salary of 5,000 tk. From then on, his achievements have reached stratospheric heights, as he also helped create a digital lab or an ICT and Resource Center for people with disabilities. He also furthered his training in Bangkok in DAISY or Digital Accessible Information System in 2006. After which, he has helped create 1000 DAISY books, which are essentially audiobooks that also include text. Bhattacharjee explains, ‘this is a model for the world to follow, because it is the first book of it’s kind that can be used by those with disabilities as well as those who do not have any.’
Most of us remain boxed in by our limitations and fear reaching our full potential, preferring to remain in our comfort zones. But despite being blind, Vashkar Bhattacharjee saw for himself the changes he could make and with a lot of grit and resilience, he achieved his goals. ‘When my daughter was in class I, she would ask me to read to her and I would not be able to, this is why I wanted to create a book that everyone could use,’ he says. Now, he is able to read to his daughter with ease using the universal design on his computer.
People are amazed that those who are visually impaired can use computers and smartphones, but with systems that translate text to speech, it has been made much easier. They also use the standard QWERTY keyboard just like everybody else as it has become second nature to them. He says, he has 50 people employed under him for a project he is working on for YPSA (Young Power in Social Action) out of which 32 are disabled. Additionally, he is also working with a2i (Access to Information) on creating websites for the disabled. ‘I want people to have opportunities that I did not have,’ says Bhattacharjee. And indeed, through carving opportunities for himself in this world, he has been able to do so for many others as well.