“Visual impairment is not in the eyes, it’s in the mind. If you will feel that you are visually impaired then you will not be able to do anything. You need to go out of the way to explore the world,” says Chetna Nagpal, who was born with an eye condition called Nystagmus.
It is a condition involving involuntary eye movement that may result in reduced or limited vision. In her case, Chetna can see things but is unable to focus on anything. But unlike many, Chetna does not find her disability to be limiting.
She believes that visual impairment is more of a mental condition than a physical one.
An ambitious 21-year-old woman, she is in the first year of a Political Science degree at one of India’s top colleges, Lady Shri Ram College for Women.
Born to completely vision-impaired parents, Chetna did not have it easy while growing up. Chetna’s parents did not know that she could see till she reached the age when she could talk and point things out to them.
“Initially my parents didn’t know that I could see at all. They had this misconception that I was totally blind like them,” she says.
“They used to switch off the lights and I used to cry, and they couldn’t figure out why. They realized I could see when I started pointing out things to them…When they did figure out that I had some vision, life became a bit easier.”
Her journey was tough but given her parents’ and her own optimism, Chetna never really felt restricted in any way despite her visual impairment.
“My parents are very supportive. My father never stopped me from doing anything or going anywhere.”
In 2007, Chetna came into contact with a Delhi based NGO, Saksham who helped her integrate into an inclusive education system in Salwan Public School.
“I was admitted into Saksham where I got two years of training. I learnt to read and write in Braille,” she shares.
“I learnt math using tailor frame. I learnt computers. After that, Saksham trainers felt I was polished enough to be inducted into a mainstream set up to study. They got me admitted into Salwan.”
Chetna was among the fortunate few to have teachers and school authorities who understood her weakness and helped her study along with other children of her age.
Initially, she did face a few issues because the teachers were not used to addressing the needs of a visually challenged student, but gradually they managed to make the environment more conducive.
Chetna made the most of her opportunity of studying in an inclusive environment. She was quick to point out her issues when her teachers failed to address her needs.
She fought alone with the school authorities to get herself a good scribe so she could score well in her Class XII exams. She grabbed all opportunities in school to hone her communication skills because she believes good communication is essential for one’s successful integration into the mainstream.
“Communication is very important. Everyone else communicates a great deal with their eyes. But for a visually impaired person, if we cannot speak well, then we cannot communicate or express ourselves fully,” she said.
Apart from developing good communication skills, Chetna believes that persons with visual impairment should embrace technology.
At college now, with the help of assistive technology, she is able to keep up with her lessons. She is also able to commute by herself daily to college using public transport and her smart phone.
“With the help of computers, I can do my work faster. Technology eases everything out. I have a smart phone with software in it that speaks out everything,” shares Chetna.
“I don’t need any one’s help to read out numbers to me or to save a particular number for me. I have my laptop which has a screen reader because of which I don’t need anyone to read out the written text to me.”
“I can read it for myself. I can record things for myself. If technology is used in a good way it can be very helpful. And for us (visually impaired people) it is truly a blessing. The process of education also becomes a lot easier with technology.”
At Lady Shri Ram College, Chetna has access to a resource room which is fully equipped with both technological and human support. But she believes that there is a need to replicate such support systems in all colleges and educational institutions for visually impaired people to succeed and lead independent lives.
As a starting point, there is also a need to receive the disabled with welcoming arms into the inclusive education system.
“They should always welcome students like me. They should not say that he/she will not be able to survive in this environment. They should give us a chance,” says Chetna.
Chetna also feels that instead of placing responsibility entirely on the authorities, individuals should alter their behaviour towards the disabled population.
“I don’t know about authorities. I feel that individuals should do something. Authorities will automatically begin to do things when individuals will be more aware and proactive,” she says.
“The society is mixed. There are both good and bad people. They are not really bad people, they are just unaware, and they just don’t know any better.”
As for the visually impaired, Chetna believes they need to believe in themselves to be able to become a part of the mainstream.
“As an individual, I always believe that one should never give up on anything. One should keep trying. You have all the right to do something for yourself and for the society,” she says.
“So never give up on hope and always think that there will be a positive outcome. If today is not a good day for you then that doesn’t mean that tomorrow won’t be better. There will be a new day, a new beginning.”