TBI This-Ability: Uncle Sam’s Battles For The Visually Impaired

Dr Sam Taraporevala of Mumbai’s XRCVC, one of the country’s finest resource centres for the blind, tells Malay Desai of his recent victories and his continuing battles for accessibility.

‘Meet me at the centre at 10 o’clock, we can talk till 10.25, after that, I have to go.’ One might expect this from a top politico or an industrialist, but Dr Sam Taraporevala, Director of the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) is no less than a VVIP in his sector. His diligence of time didn’t surprise me much though, for having been a student of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, all I’d seen of Dr Sam was him pacing hurriedly through the campus, hands always with notes, students always in tow.

Although he warns me to not give him any ‘cult’ treatment through the interview and even refuses to pose for a picture, it’s true that his leadership and restless attitude have seen XRCVC become one of India’s premier institutions in the visually impaired sector and its training, infrastructure and advocacy have impacted several blind and sighted people.

The busy director of XRCVC, Sam Taraporevala, at his centre.

The busy director of XRCVC, Sam Taraporevala, at his centre.

Dr Sam’s room, preceded by swanky ‘special’ computers, gives away his centre’s position through numerous accolades. There are also stacks of printed material all over, perhaps an effect of the Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2012 which was passed in May last year, enabling those with visual impairment and other print disabilities to convert any book into Braille, audio and other formats without the publishers’ permission. “We’ve now got the freedom to create accessible copies (of books/material) without being seen as doing something illegal,” he tells me, later admitting that the Act legalised what the centre was doing any way to cater to needs of blind students. “But now we are at par with a large number of countries which have this law,” he adds.

With 40 million persons with print disabilities in India, it’s the most visible disability with a higher amount of awareness and infrastructure as compared to others. Does he see a ‘have-nots’ feeling among others in the sector, we ask, stopping short of the word ‘envy’. “The Copyright Amendment wasn’t only for the blind, it says ‘persons with disability.’ Besides, all our other work is for the blind but will benefit all persons with disability.”

He convinced us how accessibility reforms for blind persons will also bring about the same for those with other disabilities. For instance, one of XRCVC’s recent victories has been getting Union Bank to make talking ATMs which are accessible to persons with visual impairment, which will in turn also enable wheelchair accessibility. SBI too should reportedly follow suit, which will be an even bigger achievement. Dr Sam’s ‘keep knocking’ attitude goes a long way in keeping the centre’s battles persistent with governments and private bodies. “In the end, we’re working for accessibility. Whether it’s in education or universal design… there’s lots to be done, and we’re a very small team,” he feels.

The team has however ensured the centre is technologically one of the country’s most well equipped centres for the visually challenged. “The facilities – whether they’re screen readers or OCRs (which scan/edit/read aloud printed material) or refreshable Braille machines – are of international standards,” he beams and it’s true, I’ve seen the centre constantly evolve with shinier, smarter machines.

The centre has the ‘Refreshable Braille’ display machine, which allows a blind person to read a book while scanning it.

The centre has the ‘Refreshable Braille’ display machine, which allows a blind person to read a book while scanning it.

In fact, such is the tech prowess of XRCVC that even the Hellen Keller Institute for the Deaf-Blind had sent students for a training module that week. It’s E-library and assistive technology-aided content make it a popular hive for knowledge-hungry students with disabilities not only from Xavier’s but all over the city. Besides, I remember the centre organizing cricket matches for its members, which not only sensitized other college students, but also gave an energetic buzz to its image.

While asking about one of the machines, we’re curtly reminded of the limited time on hand. “You may have a look after I leave because now you have precisely (checks his watch) three minutes,” Dr Sam puts it straight. We make the most of it by asking him a personal question, ‘what keeps him going?’ as a teacher (Dr Sam is the HOD of the Sociology Dept and has been teaching since 1988). “The activism and advocacy are voluntary, whereas teaching and interacting with the young keeps me going. I get the energy from both!” he admits.

At 10.25, as the force behind XRCVC rushes out for another meeting, giving many instructions to his subordinates in the room, we only wonder if there’s yet another secret source of his energy and infectious enthusiasm. Especially, when Dr Sam is visually impaired himself.

An initiative of Trinayani which is an NGO founded by Ritika Sahni, this is a part of a series of articles that celebrates the intriguing lives of persons with disabilities. Trinayani works towards creating Disability Awareness and equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, communicating through workshops/seminars, print, radio, films and other electronic media. Visit www.trinayani.org or write to them at trinayani.contact@gmail.com
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