Ramesh Susarla reported for theHindu.com last month about six visually challenged students in Anantapur preparing to write exams without scribes or braille scripts. With support from Rural Development Trust, our Bookshare team in India helped these students read the questions and answer them using screen-reading software on laptops. These students not only passed their 10th grade exams with flying colors, but they also made history by using laptops for the first time in the state, demonstrating that visually impaired students can perform at the same level as their non-disabled peers with reasonable accommodations. A noteworthy fact about these determined learners is that six of them were girls. According to Cook, Jenna. “Educational Disparities Among Girls in India.” Ballard Brief. September 2020, an average of 62.3% of Indian women are literate. For those with disabilities, that number is 45%, whereas 62% are literate. According to HelpLocal.in, “Disability in India 2021: Statistics, Data and Facts”. Mahak P., one of these accomplished scholars, spoke with Benetech about breaking barriers and pursuing her dreams.
Mahak P. is a high school graduating student in the central region of India, from the state known as Madhya Pradesh in a town called Chhindwara. Her interests include reading books, programming, spending time with her family, listening to music, and researching. She has a strong interest in science, physics, and astronomy, and plans to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology after high school. Please read Mahak’s interview with Benetech below to learn more about her experiences with Bookshare and assistive technology.
Q: What was your first introduction to Bookshare?
A: The Bookshare service was introduced to me at the height of Covid. Due to my low vision and the need to read very close to my face, my father felt it imperative to connect me with Bookshare’s India team and resources.
Q: What role have teachers played in your life?
A: Teachers, I think, are an important part of the life of a student. I think when we are five or six years old, we start our school and our teachers teach us things about life, books, and everything else. When I talked to my teachers about my disability, they were not only supportive, but ready to make changes to the way they teach. In the classroom, they always gave me extra time, extra support, and adopted different ways to teach me to co-operate. It was their goal to encourage me to learn new things. As far as I’m concerned, my teachers are my second closest friends after my parents.
Q: How did you find the technology and support you needed to manage your learning?
A: I manage my learning style through technologies, primarily through Bookshare. My most memorable experience would be when I met Mr. Sanjog and learned how to use computers and other system technologies. All those things were introduced to me by him. He gave me information about a variety of institutes and colleges that would support me in my studies. In addition, there were many teachers. My support was also provided by some computer teachers from a few colleges around here. During the course, I learned how to operate various technologies, how to type math on a computer, mobility, how to use other technologies in my household, how to move, navigate, and do all the things an average person would do. My life has become easier because of adjusting.
Q: What was your academic experience like before Bookshare?
A: As far as education experiences are concerned, I would say it was very limited. My lifestyle, education, and enjoyment before using technology were very limited. I had a very limited range of options. It was mostly impossible for me to do certain things. One thing I couldn’t do due to my low vision was read books. While everyone else was reading books in my school library, I sat there. With the help of technology, I can re-read any book I want, in any genre, with any author in any language. In fact, I would say that learning technology was the best thing I could have done since I’m not an outdoors person. I am an indoor person who likes to be alone to think about things and research things. Assistive Technology has helped me broaden my mind and assisted me in my education.
Q: How has Bookshare supported your studies?
A: My favorite platform is Bookshare, because it seems to have everything I could possibly need, starting with my school books. The books I needed at school were always available on Bookshare, as my school uses the service. All genres of books I enjoy reading, including fiction and science books by different authors on different topics, are present on the platform. I have read books in almost all genres. Yes, Bookshare has been like a door, a door to a universe full of books. This has been an incredible experience for me.
Q: Is there a favorite book that you tend to read on Bookshare?
Q: What would you describe your experience in classrooms before you started using Bookshare?
A: In my opinion, it was very challenging and difficult, and I believed I was oblivious to things occurring around me. After I started using Bookshare, I realized that’s what I could do. I would describe myself as caged because I was unable to express myself. The problem was that I was unable to learn, and I was unable to perform at my best. It felt like I was trapped before I used Bookshare.
Q: What advice would you have to students trying new ways of learning or setting goals for their education, especially for other girls or women?
A: My suggestion would be keeping our minds open to new ways of learning. The only way to learn new things is to try, because if you don’t try, then you might as well stop learning altogether.
Q: So what’s next for you? What would you like to study or continue learning or pursuing?
A: I’ve decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. My goal would be to become a clinical psychologist.
To read the original story and learn more about the work Benetech has advanced in India since the pandemic to scale digital literacy – [Visually-challenged students in Anantapur to write exams without help of scribes and Braille script]
Bookshare is only available for individuals who have a qualifying reading or perceptual disability, a visual impairment, or a physical disability that affects their ability to read printed works. Bookshare brings people from all backgrounds together through technology that makes reading easier. Learn more at www.bookshare.org.