14 June, 2011

Respect not Pity

We've been in Bangalore just 48 hours, which is extremely confusing to me and Tony. Not only does it seem that we've done more than we normally do in a week, but we've also been sleeping a healthy amount thanks to some lingering jet lag. And with the infamous travel times due to traffic, it's fairly impressive (to us) that we've made it to six different locations already.

Our second day started early, as my mother's family had donated breakfast to the Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind, and Tony and I tagged along to help serve it. That required a 6:30 wake up, which wasn't an issue given our scattered sleep schedules.

When we arrived at the school, the students and staff were preparing for another week. While many of the 175 students live at the school, most do not and so not everyone was there for breakfast. The first thing one notices is how effectively the kids navigate the halls and doorways, using tricks such as counting steps or echolocation. If it weren't for the look on their faces, one might forget for a moment that these students can't see where they are going.

The breakfast was a simple and traditional Indian meal featuring idli, sambar, and rice. The students filed into the modest cafeteria, feeling their way around the tables to their seats. It was noisy given that everything from the benches to plates are metal, and of course the children were busy yelling and laughing.

We learned about the history of the school, which is remarkable. The short version is that 42 years ago, the founder was moved to help the visually challenged. Starting with just one student, the organization has grown to have served over 1000 students in a variety of areas in southern India. They focus on traditional education as well as vocational training, showing students how to work machinery, tend gardens, milk cows, collect honey, and perform traditional dances. We encourage readers to visit their website or ask us questions for more information.

We didn't interact directly with the kids as much as we would have liked, but this visit was about observation. We did hear the touching story of one young boy who lost his sight when he was five months old. His grandmother, hearing that olive oil was good for sight, applied it in his eyes and he lost his vision. Today he is roughly six years old, well behaved, and his mother works at the school.

The biggest lesson that we learned is that these children are just like any other children: mischievous, playful, curious, and happy. Some were defiant, others were quiet, but they all acted like kids. Certain daily tasks presented challenges, but most didn't seem to know any better. The purpose of the school appeared to be to assure these students that if they held themselves to the same standards as everybody else, they could find similar success. Indeed, the mission statement stresses creating dignified members of society, in a culture where any disability can lead to ostracization.

Based on our experience, I would encourage anyone that is saddened by the images of these children to remember that your pity does them no good. It was difficult to watch a child get slapped for misbehaving, but the very act demonstrated equal treatment. There is no reason why these students should be exempt from learning discipline, much like any other school subject. For those that had limited vision of us filming the breakfast, I can only hope they understood that they were being filmed not because they were blind, but because they were just another student at another school.

We also had the pleasure and fortune of speaking with the founder of the school, who carries a stature that is larger than life. Most might not even notice the simply dressed old man, but you can see the years of service on his face and hear them in his voice.

We will return on Wednesday to serve lunch, and we expect it to be much busier and chaotic. We are hopeful we'll have the chance to speak with some of the students, but we don't know what to expect. Either way, this last minute addition to our trip was one of mostly smiles and a little disobedience.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent reflection, Prashanth. You are delving into the core concepts of social entrepreneurship.
    - Anjana Prasad