This article was first published in ‘White Print’ – a braille magazine for the visually impaired, founded and published by Upasana Makati.
In the words of LL Cool J, “When adversity strikes, that’s when you have to be the most calm. Take a step back, stay strong, stay grounded and press on”. That is certainly what Sushmeetha Bubna, a resident of Mumbai did. After having lost her vision, this courageous lady took on a new life and now stands as a guide, teacher, support and role model to many. 18 years ago, Sushmeetha started Voice Vision, an NGO that trains the visually impaired to use computers, and empowers the community.
On Conceptualizing Voice Vision
Sushmeetha says, “Our work involves empowering visually impaired people through integrated programs to be independent, attain dignity and ultimately build a more inclusive world. We have been enabling visually impaired with the help of technology since April 2000. Our goal has been to facilitate interaction between visually impaired, their families and society, to help them realize their dreams and to promote social inclusion. We believe in making the world a place where blindness is not a handicap, but a mere inconvenience.”
When asked if her personal experiences affected her journey with Voice Vision, she had this to say, “When I lost my vision to a great extent, I enrolled in a rehabilitation course and learnt vocational trades like candle making, broom-making and cycle repairing. However, I couldn’t accept the thought that losing one’s sense of the body meant losing one’s dignity and respect. I started exploring new avenues, came to know about accessible aids for computers and hence, started learning computers on my own with zero knowledge. With the desire to learn it more professionally, I approached a few training institutes in the vicinity.”
She admits, “I found that no one was ready to train a blind person, so decided to start an institute the day I learn. Hence, after learning myself, I started teaching others.”
The Ups And Downs
However, starting something new is never without its challenges, and Sushmeetha experienced several setbacks before hitting her stride. The organisation, despite being recognized with a national award, has yet to receive support from the government. She says, “Till date, the organisation has been self funded by the founder. The government should give disabled persons equal and enough rights to learn, earn and lead a dignified life.”
However, Sushmeetha says, “My journey was difficult but satisfying and happy. I have gotten name, fame and personal identity, along with immense satisfaction of giving back to the society and helping someone smile or think differently.”
She says, “In the initial stages, I sought support from other NGOs but had a firsthand experience of their negative approach towards the innovative idea of blind people using computers. I was told, ‘In India, blind do not have enough to eat, are you mad, you will teach them computers?’ With God’s grace, students did come to me to learn about computers, and the numbers kept multiplying. Hiring faculty is a challenge as the sighted don’t think this job will have a bright future, while blind find it an insecure job. People apply for this faculty job only if they are not able to do any other job. I am also currently facing the challenge of raising funds.”
She adds, “The community praises you a lot, treats you with great respect and pride and trusts you. But individuals who are earning still feel uncomfortable about paying for any training or workshops for the community. The attitude of getting everything for free needs to be changed, and one needs to realize that to get something valuable and worthy, one needs to always pay.”
How Far They Have Come
Since they opened their doors, Voice Vision have seen some amazing results. Sushmeetha says, “Through computer training, Voice Vision can make a small difference in students lives. Using this single tool, they can attain new heights and lead dignified lives.”
She elaborates, “For instance, when our first student joined our course, he was studying and his family was not financially capable of paying our fees. But today, he is working in an MNC firm as a senior HR manager and has completed his MBA from TISS. 75% of our students are well placed and doing excellently in their respective fields. They are MBAs, CAs, physiotherapists, entrepreneurs, working in banks, language translators, trainers, etc.”
Expanding Their Horizons
Over the years, the Voice Vision team have realized that they needed to include more activities and ideas to their mission statement.
Sushmeetha explains, “After eight years of imparting computer training, we realized that this is not enough. A lot needs to be taught, ranging from basic and personal care to knowing one’s legal rights, and also, the knowledge of socializing, developing oneself, personal safety, and ways to help others.”
She says, “We started the Knowledge Sessions section, which not only gave information on various important topics, but also a platform to interact and make friends. Parents also came together and formed a group, where they shared their strengths and weaknesses. All these sessions gave people something to take away and also helped strengthen the bonds between participants. Entertainment is just one aspect of such sessions.”
Though her ideas have met with some resistance, overall the experience has been a positive one. Sushmeetha says, “Their reluctance is not specifically to salsa dance or any special form, or theatre. They are apprehensive of exploring new things, especially when asked to pay for the same. We did charge Rs. 300 for both the workshops along with food, etc.”
She muses, “We would have had many more participants coming if it was done free of cost. But all the participants who came were seriously interested and enthusiastic about exploring new things. They had a great fun and learnt a lot from both the workshops.”
A Special Connection
In addition to these workshops and training programmes, the site also features a matrimonial section! Sushmeetha is just as passionate about this as she is her initial ventures, explaining, “In this module one can come and register his/her profile on the website, irrespective of being disabled or not. They can send their interests and take their relationships further. To facilitate this further, we have already organised two get-togethers across disability where we facilitated prospects to meet, know and interact with individuals of their interest.”
She says, “We feel creating a platform itself — where one can come and interact — is necessary and an important step towards the goal of marriage.”
These meet-ups also serve the important purpose of being able to facilitate necessary conversations. Sushmeetha says, “At our first get-together, we discussed scenarios where a disabled person might marry someone with the same disability or some other disability person or an able person. It was discussed and concluded that no situation is perfect, as each situation has its own pros and cons that can be overcome only by facing and tackling the problems. It was also highlighted that one needs to focus on one’s strengths and weakness, and also see the same in the other person rather than matching the disabilities, match the abilities.”
These get-togethers also serve the dual purpose of drawing the family members into the conversation, and helping them understand the issues at hand. Sushmeetha elaborates, “We also learnt that the parents of disabled persons are looking for a caretaker for their kids rather than looking for a life partner. A lot of the time, the parents are more confused and depressed than the kids at the thought of their marriages.”
What Lies Ahead
Sushmeetha says, “We want to take our knowledge sessions like First Aiders and Sexuality and Intimacy along with the matrimonial program across the country. We seek collaborating opportunities with various local NGOs working for the visually impaired community.”
We, at KnowYourStar, applaud Voice Vision for their display of out-of-the-box thinking and determination to make a difference!
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