Published: 23rd August 2020
Why Mitra Jyothi's founder Madhu Singhal's story can inspire the young to see those who cannot see
From a talking book library to a Braille transcription centre, Madhu Singhal's organisation, Mitra Jyothi, empowers the visually impaired children, women and youngsters through education
So what if you are visually impaired? You can still explore and achieve what you want. All it needs is some effort to learn, says Madhu Singhal, Founder and Managing Trustee of Mitra Jyothi. These words don't come from ignorance but from personal experience. Yes, Madhu is visually impaired herself. This organisation, based in Bengaluru, has been working in the interest of the visually impaired for the last 30 years to educate and empower thousands of them. What ensured the organisation's survival is Madhu's determination to not give up. Born and brought up in Haryana, Madhu completed her Post Graduation in Hindustani Classical Music. While she wanted to become a lecturer of music at a university in India, destiny brought her to Bengaluru and she settled down in the Garden City. She recalls, "Those days, visually-impaired people mostly chose the music stream and pursued their career in it. Now, times have changed and we are trying to explore every stream possible. For instance, many young people who are visually impaired have cleared their UPSC this year, some have even gone ahead and explored indoor games like chess. I have many such examples to quote but it has been possible through technology and tools. And this is how we empower people."
After coming to Bengaluru in 1987, Madhu continued to live with her elder sister and decided to work for the visually impaired community in Karnataka. Back then, there was no thought of starting an organisation. But then she met N S Hema who founded The Association of People with Disability. "Those days, access to education, especially for the specially-abled, was not easy. There were no proper study materials available, Braille was not encouraged at schools and other places. As a result, many youngsters had to drop out of education. That's when I decided to start an organisation to help the visually impaired on a large scale. My family was both surprised and happy. Since, we did not have much money to invest, I started Mitra Jyothi in the garage at Hema's house in 1990," Madhu explains.
An organisation that's grown from a small garage and to now a bigger building in Bengaluru's HSR Layout, we not only found it hard to believe, we were also super curious to know how that happened. Madhu says, "It has been a tough journey for most of us in this organisation but we remained grounded. At a garage in Hema's house, I along with a few people started recording textbooks to help visually-impaired students. We had this huge tape recorder at our house and many empty cassettes. Today, we hardly find these cassettes and tape recorders as they have been replaced by smaller and more advanced devices. We would record these school and college textbooks and give it to the people who required it. I never thought that this would later grow into a huge talking library consisting thousands of books, both academic and general knowledge. Gradually, the word spread and people started visiting us in large numbers. We had to shift to different buildings every now and then. The main challenge was to shift the library, Braille books and other study materials necessary for the visually impaired. Every time, we shifted, we had to share our address and it was difficult for people to find us."
With hundreds of people visiting Mitra Jyothi for assistance in reading and education, Madhu approached the Bangalore Development Authority in 2005 asking for a plot for the construction of her own building. After a lot of running from pillar to post, Madhu was finally allocated a plot in Bengaluru's HSR Layout. But construction was another challenge ahead of them. Madhu who did not lose hope, says, "Some people who already knew about our selfless service came forward to help us with the funds required. My family has been the biggest support to me in all these years. Finally, in 2008, we completed the construction of our building and recently in 2015, we celebrated our silver jubilee. This permanent building has given us a space to put our facilities and programmes in place for children, youngsters and women."
Programmes on a dashboard
Mitra Jyothi has a lot of programmes for visually-impaired people and thousands of them across India and neighbouring countries come here to get trained. The Education Resource Centre (ERC) provides a varied collection of accessible text and reference books, magazines, fiction and non-fiction books in multiple languages and formats. "This is for the people who cannot read printed material. The Talking Book Library and Braille Transcription Centre are the two programmes under the ERC. Hundreds of volunteers lend their voice to record these books. Earlier, we recorded them in cassettes but as the technology has improved, we have switched to recording these books on CDs. Some of them have been digitised too. While school kids can get all their textbooks in Braille transcription, adults going to college can make use of talking books that will help them increase their speed of reading. Recently, the Karnataka Textbook Society has also come forward to take our digitised textbooks and upload it onto their website for school kids," explains Madhu.
Though Madhu comes from a generation where there were hardly any gadgets used, she believes in transforming oneself and adapting to technology that is seen around us. Therefore, Mitra Jyothi started the Computer Training Centre in 2005. She says, "We can't stay behind when it comes to learning and equal competition with others. And that's why I started to train visually impaired people in computers. At the centre, they get to learn various software like JAWS and NonVisual Desktop Access in a period of six months. They will also learn to use Microsoft Excel, Word and other commonly used programmes, thus, preparing them for jobs in the market as well as other competitive exams."
Even when in lockdown
Like every other organisation, Mitra Jyothi was also closed for a period of three months due to the pandemic. However, their services were still available for the visually impaired. "We provided visually-impaired people living in rural areas with ration kits and other essentials. Apart from this, some people needed books to prepare for their exams. To such people, we went ahead and posted CDs and shared the digitised version of the books through email. Though we are open now, we don't allow anyone to come inside as it is not safe. They can email or call us if they are in need of books, we will cater to them as usual through postal or courier services."