In the Northern Indian town of Rohtak where Madhu Singal grew up, there were no Braille books. A white cane for the blind to walk with independently? She didn’t even know anything like that existed. Whenever she wanted to go outside, someone went with her and guided her by hand. Yet even before she found out about these things she got her master’s degree and started her NGO Mitra Jyoti, an organisation that wants to support the visually impaired in being independent.
“I often hear people with a disability complaining. That they are being discriminated against. That the government should do more to help them. That they were ignored by their parents as a child. I always say: ‘There is no point in sitting in a corner and complaining. Take the first step yourself. Crawl out of your shell. Go out into the world’.”
She speaks from experience. She too crawled out of her shell little by little. She took her first important step when she was twelve. Up to grade 6, Madhu had received home schooling from a blind teacher who taught her to read and write Braille. When she was 12 years old, he felt it was time for a change and said she should go to an ordinary school. And that’s what happened. In grade 6 she started going to a neighbourhood school.
‘I was a shy girl and not yet assertive enough to tell people what I wanted’
“The first few months were very tough. I had been squeezed into a busy, noisy classroom with 40 children.” Her classmates had never seen a blind person before. “They had trouble understanding that I was only visually impaired, and otherwise healthy.” They bombarded her with questions to satisfy their curiosity. What time do you go to bed? Can you read? But when there was a break for children to play, they all rushed outside and she stayed behind, alone in the classroom. Her teacher also had to learn how to deal with her disability. “I remember a school picnic where he told me in advance: ‘You go home. Take some rest. You wouldn’t enjoy a picnic anyway’. I did as he told me. I was a shy girl and not yet assertive enough to tell people what I wanted.”
Another important step that Madhu took was going to university: she earned her bachelor of arts and a masters degree in Hindustani classical music. Braille books for those studies didn’t exist back then, so the textbooks had to be read to her. And she would then take notes in Braille. “There was no shortage of reading help. I grew up in a large joined family: we lived with about forty people in a four-story house. There was always an uncle or aunt I could ask for a reading session.”
Shortly after she obtained her masters, her life changed drastically when her father passed away. She had to move in with her brother in Kanpur. A city more than 500 kilometers away, in Uttar Pradesh, where she didn’t know the way. She wanted to teach at a university, but finding work was difficult, let alone the work that she wanted to do. She therefore mainly stayed at home.
‘Let me know what you want to do. I will guide you’
A short vacation to her sister in Bangalore changed her life. “My brother-in-law saw that I was wasting away. He could see that a life indoors like that had no purpose for me. One day he came to me and said: ‘Let me know what you want to do. I will guide you’. And that’s how Mitra Jyoti started.”
Mitra Jyoti does many different things. It has opened South India’s first privately run Braille printing press. It has a library with more than 3800 audiobooks. And you can go to Mitra Jyoti for computer training and training courses that improve self-reliance. At the self-reliance courses attention is paid to personal mobility, but also to managing a household.
When Madhu founded Mitra Jyoti, a new world opened up for her. She started networking with other disability organisations and she met people who were much more severely disabled than she, and nevertheless still very active in the middle of society. “I thought: if they can achieve that much, then I too must be able to do a lot more.” So she became more assertive. Once a woman who barely went outdoors, she transformed into a woman who travels around the world for her work without any problems.
‘These women need an extra push’
Madhu gets a lot of recognition for her work and has received many awards over the past decades. Despite that success, fundraising is always a challenge. Despite of this challenge, Madhu is bursting with plans.The organisation is already giving self-reliance training courses to rural women and wants to intensify this programme in the coming years. Madhu sums up the situation: “These women need an extra push. They start out with already four strikes against them: they have a visual handicap; they are poor; they are women; and, they live in rural areas where being blind is still a taboo. Many women have no choice but to stay indoors. Every day and all day. We want to get them out of their isolation and help them to become more mobile. Then they can go outside independently, without help, and talk to their fellow villagers.”
‘Sometimes they ask me whether a blind person can use a computer’
In addition, Mitra Jyoti will increasingly provide awareness to various organizations and institutions. “We have already started doing this. We visit companies to tell them what blind people are capable of – often they have no idea,” says Madhu. “Sometimes they ask me whether a blind person can use a computer, for example.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of positive stories too. “I remember two blind girls who came to us already 25 years old. They were from the countryside and had never been to school. They successfully completed a self-reliance training course. After the last session, they came to me and said, ‘We want to continue learning.’ So I enrolled them in The National Institute of Open Schooling. And now they’re both working at a bank.”