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History

A Brief History of Blind Persons’ Association

Exiled from the world of light and colours shut up into a dungeon of dayless gloom, looked down upon by the general society as cursed creatures for sins committed in the previous births, the blind persons of India went a-begging from door to door singing doleful songs. Such was the common lot of sightless men and women of India till the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the meantime, a revolutionary change had taken place in Europe in the world of education of the blind. Monsieur Louis Braille of France, himself blind, invented a tactile code for reading and writing of the sightless, which came to be named after him.

The braille system made its way to India in the later part of the 19th century, and a few schools for the blind were started in different parts of India. Rev. Lal Bihari Shah, a great philanthropist, founded the first school for the blind in Eastern India, Calcutta, in the year 1894. The school initiated a gradual process of enlightenment, self-reliance and self-assertion among the sightless persons of Bengal.

It is in this background that Blind Persons’ Association (B.P.A.) was established in December 5, 1946, by a handful of educated and conscious blind youth under the presidentship of Late Nagendranath Sengupta, professor of Bangabasi College, to promote self-confidence and self-dependence among their fellow brothers and sisters. Primarily, the office of the Association was housed at the premises of Light House for the Blind, Kolkata, the second blind school in West Bengal. Sri Sadhan Chandra Gupta (Bar at law), late Madhusudan Majumder (the then editor of Naba Kallol and Suktara), late Manindra Krishna Kumar (professor at D.A. College, Howrah), and late Shishir Dasgupta (ex-principal of Light House for the Blind)–were among the promoters of the Association.

The Association is a unique of its kind in India since it is an organisation of, for, and by the blind where sightless persons make all decisions.

In the beginning, the activities of BPA were limited to collecting members, organising discussions on problems of the blind inviting important citizens from different walks of life; distributing braille paper and equipment to many among the needy blind; summoning an annual meet of all the members on the day of Mahalaya before Durga Puja. Free exchange of opinions, songs, and recitations were the part and parcel of the meet.

Being situated within the premises of an institution, it was not always easy to act independently as the action might clash with the interest of the host institution. With all its limitations BPA kept alive and cultivated the spirit of democracy and free thinking among its members. In the earlier part of the ‘sixties of the last century BPA started a sheltered workshop for sightless girls at Baderaipur, Jadabpur with a few workers. But the project had to be abandoned for lack of funds.

In the later part of the ‘sixties of the last century, a fresh batch of young men and women became members of BPA and infused great enthusiasm into the organisation. They pleaded for taking the Association Office out of the premises of Light House for the Blind. Accordingly, the office was shifted to a rented house at Jadabpur, Kolkata.

The rejuvenated Association immediately plunged into action to implement the four point programme of (1) Education (2) Employment (3) Social Security and (4) Social Placement of the visually impaired–adopted from its inception. The results may be enumerated in brief under the following heads:

Education of the Blind

About 10% of the blinded population of our country belong to the school-going age, the existing schools are not in a position to admit them all. In order to meet the challenge of educating the vast number of blind children, the Association intends to set up as many blind schools in different districts of West Bengal as possible. With this object in view, the Association first started a Blind School at Uttarpara, Hooghly, in a rented house on 20th August, 1978. The school was named Louis Braille Memorial School after the great inventor of the tactile system of reading and writing for the blind. Later on, shifted to its own building, the school received sponsorship of the Government of West Bengal.

As a part of observing the International Year of the Disabled in 1981, Tarun Memorial Braille Library and School for the Sightless was set up at Shyamnagar, North 24?Parganas in a rented house. It was later on transferred to a purchased house near the railway station. The library has been transferred to Lal Bihari Shah Braille Academia recently. The school is now known as Tarun Memorial School for the Sightless. The institution was named after Late Tarun Sengupta, the then secretary of the Association, who died a premature death in 1979.

In March 21, 1982 Helen Keller Smriti Vidyamandir was established in a rented house at Chowdhury para, Krishnanagar, Nadia. Thereafter, the school was shifted to its own building at Raja Road, Krishnanagar. The school admits both boys and girls and provides education up to class VI. The institution received recognition from the State Government in the year 1993.

Nazrul Smriti Dristihin Vidyalaya at Gangpur, Hattala, Burdwan was founded on April 10, 1987, at the house of Smt. Nilima Chatterjee. Later on, the school was shifted in its own building constructed on a plot of land donated by Smt. Chatterjee.

As most of the students come from poverty-stricken families, we provide hostel facility and academic education generally up to primary level without fees in all our schools. Over and above, we try to teach our students daily living skills, social living skills, mobility, music, recitation, dramatics, games and physical training.

Without integration with the greater society the education of the visually challenged will not be complete. We, therefore, encourage our students to go to the general schools after their primary education. We also provide them with food and lodging and other necessary assistance.

The Braille Press and Library Project

Braille Books are important tools for combating ignorance and acquiring knowledge and wisdom. Despite the presence of some other means like cassette, CD and computer–the use of braille books is out and out indispensable for the education of the blind. But unfortunately braille books are scarce and costly. Though the regional Braille Press at Narendrapur has been providing school students with braille books on school subjects, books on higher learning and for popular reading were not available. To overcome the severe problem a proposal was made in the ‘eighties of the last century to establish a colossal braille press for producing necessary braille books for higher education as well as various books for general reading including literature for children and a well-furnished library of braille, ink-print and audio books. In 1995, 28 kathas of land were purchased at Bidyapalli, Malancha Mahinagar Kolkata–700145. On January 4, 2003 the braille press was inaugurated by Dr. Sushil Kumar Mukherjee, Ex-Vice Chancellor of Calcutta and Kalyani University and a Scientist of international repute. The institution was named Lal Bihari Shah Braille Academia after Rev. Lal Bihari Shah, pioneer of education for the blind in the Eastern region of India. The braille books are sold to the sightless people at a very nominal price. For example, the cost of paper for producing Chokher Bali, a famous novel of Rabindranath Tagore, is rs. 240 but we sell the book at rs. 30 only. Our aim is to produce braille books in all Indian languages including Urdu and English.

On the auspicious occasion of the beginning of bicentennial birth anniversary of Monsieur Louis Braille, January 4, 2008 we inaugurated the library of braille, ink-print and audio books-cassettes and CD-at the premises of Lal Bihari Shah Braille Academia.

We recall with gratitude the wholehearted support and cooperation of a good number of our volunteers and wellwishers, a few charitable organisations and generous people from all walks of life for the completion of this gigantic project. The role of innumerable students of different schools and colleges in raising funds for the development of the project is highly appreciable.

To facilitate the education of the blind our Association started from 2003-04 Kamalendu Bhattacharya Memorial Scholarship in memory of late Kamalendu Bhattacharya, the adviser and one of the leading organisers of Blind Persons’ Association.

Employment

The problem of employment of the blind is a hard nut to crack. Still, Blind Persons’ Association has been trying in its own humble way to tackle this situation. Long back in 1969, the Association placed before the State and Central Government a demand for reserving three percent of jobs for the disabled persons including one percent for the blind. Fortunately, the demand had been fulfilled in the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995.

In 1967, West Bengal Board of Secondary Education published a circular debarring blind graduates from becoming teachers in public schools. After many struggles initiated by the Association the said circular was withdrawn.

Then again in the ‘nineties when School Service Commission disallowed sightless candidates to sit for examinations with scribes, BPA launched a strong movement including a 24 hours hunger strike against this unjust decision and had even to move the law court in order to mend matters right. Simultaneously the Association discharged a struggle against the same injustice committed by Public Service Commission. In this case too, Calcutta High Court gave the decision in our favour. Consequently a good number of visually handicapped candidates have been taking part every year in various competitive examinations and a few, of course, have attained success.

With a view to improving the lot of the rural unemployed blind, the Association urged upon the State Government to implement the P.W.D. Act and to give them a portion of the vested land or some unemployment benefit. This apart, the Association took several positive measures to promote employment of the visually impaired from time to time.

To give direct employment, BPA runs a spice-grinding workshop at Krishnanagar within the premises of Helen Keller Smriti Vidyamandir.

Social Security

By the term “social security” the Association means eager maintenance of those conditions which are conducive to a person’s fullest development. Needless to say that gainful employment is the first requisite for a man’s all-round development. What was done in this respect, has already been stated above. Besides, sightless persons have been granted concessions by the State Government to travel in state transport free of charge, largely through the efforts of BPA. Then again the Association moved the State Government to enact “White Cane Law” even submitting a draft of “Model White Cane Law”. However, no law has been enacted in this behalf to this date. BPA is still lobbying to get this law enacted. The law will greatly facilitate the safe mobility of the sightless on high ways.

Blind girls often become victims of sexual harassment from the part of the mail-dominated society. BPA acts as a watch dog for preservation of the honour and chastity of sightless women. On various occasions, it has raised its voice of protest against such violations of women’s rights.

Furthermore, the Association stood vehemently against any kind of injustice upon visually handicapped from the part of Government or private institutions.

Social Placement

One of the most agonising problems of the visually impaired is their isolation to a considerable degree from the main stream of the society. All the activities of the Association are geared to the supreme goal of achieving social placement of the visually impaired. It is possible only when the visually handicapped can achieve social integration. Misconceptions, superstitions, and prejudices regarding or against the blind, originating in the past, when science and technology were almost non-existent, still linger on in this age of unprecedented material development. A blind person can never be a substitute for a sighted person, it is argued. In reply, it may be pointed out that many things are possible for a blind individual in this era of science and technology, which could not even be imagined in the past.

Besides, keeping millions of visually handicapped persons as outcasts, the society itself will be the loser for the labour power and intellectual capacity of a vast number of people. Helen Keller, the deaf-blind lady of world repute, Olga Sksrodova, the deaf-blind pedagogist of the erstwhile U.S.S.R., Abraham Memeth, the totally blind professor of Mathematics (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and M. Pontryagin, the blind inventor of topological algebra (U.S.S.R.), are but few names in the galaxy of illustrious sightless men and women.

Not only the blind, but also many physically and mentally sound persons cannot do many things. A sighted person cannot read in the dark, while a totally blind person can do with it. Our human society is a grand co-operative organisation of individuals with deficiencies and limitations. Here the deficiency and inefficiency of one are compensated by the efficiency ability of others. Considered from this angle of vision, there should have been known problem in the process of total integration of the visually handicapped persons with the general society.

The VISUALLY HANDICAPPED persons have also an important roll to play on their part. Social acceptance cannot be gained by begging or slogan shouting. It has got to be earned through a long and painstaking process of persuasion, propaganda and setting examples.

That is why, BPA encourages and assists all its members to develop high moral characters with lofty ethical and aesthetic values, manifesting in selfless love and actions for others. This is why, BPA organizes blood donation camps, flood and quake relief collections, free coaching centres, medical camps etc., for the benefit of the unfortunate sections of the society. BPA trusts and believes that VISUALLY HANDICAPPED individuals can achieve social acceptance by identifying themselves with all that is best, noblest and finest in the society. Hence, members are required to study lives of great men and women, read the works of great authors and poets, published by the Braille Press of Lal Bihari Shah Braille Academia.

The Association is alive to the fact that all its members can hardly be expected to get at the goal set up by it; but it does know that if only a few can attain to this height, it will send an electric shock of appreciation through the whole gamut of our society, which will then be roused to sympathy and action for the cause of the so long neglected section of humanity. If one Vivekananda could earn for India the respect of the West through his iron determination and noble character, why not the dedicated members of BPA, however few in number they may be, shall not succeed to realize the cherished dream of social acceptance and full participation with equal opportunity?

Re-education of the general society

the society is rampant with various negative ideas about the blind and blindness. Phrases like “blind rage”, “blind faith” and “blind obedience” etc., amply reveal the social attitude. Blindness is equated with irrationality, inaction, incapacity and wickedness. Still others believe that the blind are the beloved of God and hold them in awful reverence. Attitude of rejection, attitude of pity and attitude of guardianship are very common social phenomena.

Centuries of neglect, indifference, pity and guardianship on the part of the seeing society have produced among the blind some undesirable mindsets too. Hostility towards the sighted world, self-pity and total withdrawal into one’s own shell are some of the evil effects of negative social attitude to be found among the visually handicapped.

In order to right these wrong mindsets, BPA carries on a two-prolonged campaign of re-educating the sighted as well as sightless population. On the one hand, exhibitions, seminars, symposia and street corner meetings are organised in order to enlighten the seeing public on the actual truth about the visually impaired persons; on the other hand, attempts are made to help the visually challenged persons develop positive attitudes towards the world of the seeing. Ignorance, and not malice is at the root of all evils.

In the past BPA organised and still organises public awareness campaigns in different districts of West Bengal. Assam and Bihar, too, were visited in the past for the same reason. Every year exhibitions are organised during Durga Puja in Kolkata and during Poush Mela at Shantiniketan.

Publications of the Association

Blind Persons’ Association publishes booklets, leaflets, Souvenirs etc., disseminating its ideas and ideals. In 1978 it brought out a quarterly named “Phalak”. Later on the quarterly was registered as “Phalak Shirsha” in the year 1980. The magazine served as a bridge between the sighted and the sightless, where both sighted and sightless writers and poets contributed, irrespective of cast, creed and sex. The quarterly published many valuable articles on different social subjects. Social integration of the seeing and the blind was the motto of the quarterly. The quarterly continued to exist for long 25 years. Unfortunately, however, it had to be discontinued for reasons more than one—-the most important of which was the lack of funds, advertisements and skilled personnel.

Movements

From time to time, the Association had to resort to demonstrations holding Press Conferences, to get its voice heard. In 1981, the Year of the Disabled, a sit-in-demonstration and 24 hours’ hunger strike were organized in support of its most legitimate charter of demands. In the ‘eighties and the ‘nineties movements were launched involving all types of disabled persons throughout West Bengal. As a result, many of its demands were fulfilled to a great extent.

BPA generally strives to eradicate negative attitudes rampant within the existing society regarding the blind and blindness by way of propaganda and persuasion. Despite its best efforts, however, sometime it so happens that official bureaucracy cannot be weaned from its hostile attitudes towards the blind. It is only then that the Association has to recourse to non-violent movements involving the sightless and the rational section of sighted humanity. Sit-in-demonstrations, hunger-strikes, courting arrests enmasse–are but some of the forms of such movements. 24 hours’ fasting in 1981, year of the disabled, courting mass arrest in 90’s involving all categories of disabled persons throughout West Bengal are but a few examples to the point. These movements paid good dividends in the long run.

Sources of Fund

In the early ‘fifties of the last century the association’s income and expenditures hardly crossed few hundreds rupees; but now they run to several lakhs. This is due to vast growth of its activities and services. Income is derived from donations from generous wealthy citizens, door to door collections, street collections, school and college collections, collections in Durga Puja pandals, fairs etc. Some ad hoc grants are received from Central Government and Local Governments. But these are few and far between. Sun or rain, BPA volunteers are seen to wander from house to house collecting funds; they organize fund raising campaigns in street corners, railway stations and even in long distance train compartments. Spice-grinding shops are run on no profit no loss basis. The Braille Press runs on seeing braille books at a subsidized rate.

Volunteers of BPA

Volunteers of the organisation are unique in ways more than one. First of all, there are service-holders and pensioners who render long hours of voluntary service to BPA. Then there are whole-time volunteers receiving just a pittance to make ends meet. Next comes the third category of voluntary workers who are whole timers with no salary at all. They work out of a profound sense of social commitment for the cause. They are striving their best to identify themselves with the interest of BPA. And finally, there are numberless floating volunteers who render invaluable service to the organisation from time to time, centring round various occasions. It is not unprecedented that a few paid workers voluntarily surrender their salary to the Association and become unpaid volunteers through a process of identification with the cause of the organisation. It may not be out of place here to record the case of a sighted young lady who herself being invalidated through a long period of wrong medical treatment has, at last, found peace and solace in serving the cause of the sightless persons.

In a world of dominated by pride, prejudice, selfishness and greed, it is the motto of BPA to hold aloft the banner of altruism, selflessness, sympathy and mutual understanding among the blind and the seeing citizens of the society. The Association is struggling hard to generate a counter current of selfless activities in order to balance, and if possible to overpower the existing one of heartless selfishness amounting to savagery. The success of BPA bears an eloquent testimony to the fact that a noble goal can be achieved with small means if the workers are motivated with selfless dedication and genuine love for the cause.

Shibabrata Sengupta