When the father of Pramod Gokhale, a past president of RC Pune University, D 3131, was only 21, due to an accidental high dose of penicillin, he lost his eyesight, “becoming totally blind. He was a qualified automobile engineer,” recalls his son.
But undeterred by his handicap, the senior Gokhale started his own auto dealership in Pune, which today has 80 employees. In 1986 he got a national award for the most efficient handicapped entrepreneur.
But he did more than start an auto dealership; in collaboration with the National Federation for the Blind, Maharashtra (NFBM), he started Jagriti, a school for visually challenged girls in the outskirts of Pune. Here about 100 girls from disadvantaged families in rural Maharasthra get residential accommodation and education.
Jagriti also offers employment opportunities to young blind women. At present, it has a modest campus, but a spanking new one is now coming up at a cost of $130,000. But more of that project, which ambitiously hopes to become ‘the IIT for the blind,’ later.
At the old Jagriti campus, I meet Sonali, 21, who is proofreading over braille, an English book translated into Marathi. Dnyaneshwar N Tapkir, President Emeritus, NFBM, who has been working with Jagriti for 38 years, explains that through the use of Duxbury Braille translation software, English or Hindi books are translated into Marathi, or vice versa and Sonali and a few other girls working here are proofreading the translated text.
Two of their proofreaders have got jobs in Bank of India and Bank of Baroda. We encourage them to leave; it is better for their future.
Sonali, who is visually challenged too, joined two years ago and is now pursuing her BA degree in History. “I was born blind … though I can see a little light. There was a vacancy here for proofreading,
I applied and got the job.” She gets a salary of Rs 12,000, hopes to complete her BA soon and apply for a bank job.
“We encourage them to do that as that will be better for them in the long term,” says Gokhale, adding that two of their earlier employees have got jobs in Bank of India and Bank of Baroda.
Suman, 21, is another proofreader who came here last year after completing her BA in History from Fergusons college. Her father is a mattress maker and she too gets a salary of Rs 12,000. “With this money I am able to take care of all my expenses and I don’t ask my parents for any money.” She also saves money from her salary for higher education. “My objective is to do a course in library science and get a job as a librarian, as I love to read all kinds of books, in Marathi and Hindi.” Premchand is her favourite writer and she loves his classic work Godan. “Her mother language is Bhojpuri but she has mastered Marathi,” explains Tapkir.
Many girls from Jagriti are sent by vans to schools for ordinary children, and their pass rates are encouraging. “For the last 16 years, our girls have been getting 100 per cent pass in Class 10 exams of the State Board. Many of our girls get 60-80 per cent marks, competing with normal students. Our endeavour is to give them more than mere text books in braille. We want to give them magazines and other books, and open out the world of books to them,” he adds.
With the Rotarians from RC Pune University wanting to do much more for the visually challenged, they have embarked upon setting up “an IIT-like institution for the blind. We want to attract the brightest students from all over India and give them specialised and advanced courses to empower them to make not only a living but a career,” says Gokhale.
With the Maharashtra Government giving them two acres of land, and the NFBM constructing a spanking new building, the Rotarians have put in $1.3 million (including $90,000 donated by Abhay Gadgil, DGE of D 3131, as a Term gift) to provide state-of-the-art facilities. Inaugurated in February by Bollywood star Nana Patekar, the facility has cheerful and well-appointed classrooms, a training centre, laboratory, a music room and an office. A residential complex for the girls is now under construction. “We now have 150 blind girls from various rural areas of Maharashtra, and once the hostel is ready we will take 150 more girls. We are offering technical education here and taking day scholars too. It will not really be an engineering college but close to one … we will make our students competent and qualified for IT industry jobs,” says Gadgil.
President of the Club Deepa Gadgil, and other Rotarians such as Sujata Kulkarni, Pallavi Deshpande, are playing an active role in this facility for blind girls. Says Sujata, “We are very committed to ensuring that these visually challenged girls get economic independence and empowerment.”
Gokhale adds that when PRIP Rajendra K Saboo visited Jagriti’s new complex to lay the foundation stone, he said, “This facility should be like a temple of wisdom for the visually challenged.”
Apart from the Duxbury Braille translating software, the school has audio recording systems, iPods donated by Rotarians and Sunetra tablets in which audio lessons are fed.