By guest author Clotilde Vasconi, Business Development Officer
One year ago, Benetech embarked on a groundbreaking project in the Indian city of Pune, Maharashtra, thanks to a grant from All Children Reading (ACR). Over the past 12 months, we have implemented a pilot program that leverages Bookshare, our library of accessible ebooks for people who have difficulty reading printed material, in four schools for the blind. We are helping 135 children with visual impairments (VI) learn to read by providing Bookshare books that combine human-narrated audio and braille reading in Marathi, their mother tongue. Through this project, we are developing a new technology-based innovation to scale Bookshare worldwide. Our objective is to bring accessible educational materials to all the children with print disabilities in the developing world so that they can learn and thrive at school like their peers.
However, this pilot needs more than just innovative assistive technologies to be successful and scalable
worldwide; it needs a capable team on the ground. And the cornerstone of this ACR project is, without a doubt, our Story Uncle. He is the one who visits our partner schools every week and helps young students use their DAISY Plextalk, the reading device we gave them which is often the first piece of technology they ever use. The Story Uncle engages with those young students, ensures they don’t fall behind, and instills in them a genuine love of reading. He is also a bridge between our Benetech team and the children and their teachers. We knew one year ago that we had to find the right person for that incredibly important mission, and we found this amazing Story Uncle in Hanumanta V. Talar.
“Bhuko Kutro” (hungry dog) is the affectionate nickname our team gave Hanumanta when he started because he is an energetic young man who never stops eating. His colleagues describe him as a smart and talented man who is fearless and hardworking. But he is also a gentle and warm individual who genuinely cares about his colleagues, a man of honest love for his people and especially for children.
Hanumanta, who was born in 1983 with a visual impairment, is from a lower middle class family. He graduated in 2003 from the Happy Home School for the Blind, a boarding school in central Mumbai. He then attended the D.G. Rooparal College to pursue a degree in the arts. Despite being a very talented student, he had to stop his studies and work to support his family when his father died. Thanks to his perseverance and his solid belief in this own capabilities, he resumed college and graduated in 2012.
Hanumanta is a resourceful professional who is always willing to accept new challenges. After working as a massage and acupressure therapist, he became a trainer and taught future therapists, transferring his solid vocational skills to other young professionals with visual impairments. Excelling in his role, he volunteered to take on even more responsibilities within his organization. In addition, Hanumanta is an active member of the National Association for the Blind in India where he was deeply appreciated and esteemed for his contributions to the visually-impaired community.
Before joining the Benetech project, he had experience teaching adults, but never children. When we offered him the job, he accepted the challenge with his usual energy and positivity. He immediately began to learn the art of teaching young children. Tirelessly working with our four partner schools, he has become a favorite among the children, who eagerly await his weekly visits. Thanks to his unique way of engaging children using various techniques such as games, quizzes, and jokes, he connects to his young audience like no one else. Today, students are eager to listen to the stories from their Story Uncle and hang on to his arms when he is at their school.
His energy and optimism is invaluable to the children in Pune, but also to Benetech and our team as he keeps being an indefatigable advocate for the VI community. He is a remarkable role model for young generations as he successfully deals with the formidable obstacles that people with VI meet daily. Every day, he fights for his rights in a steady and judicious manner, always respecting others even when they don’t respect him in return. When he moved to Pune with his wife to become Story Uncle, he needed to open a bank account to receive his pay from Benetech. The answer he got from the Indian branch of a famous international bank was harsh: “You are blind and we don’t serve blind people.” Rather than losing his temper or accepting defeat, he decided he would fight this battle by persevering and asking for our team’s help.
Our American International Manager felt very upset for him and was ready to confront the bank director, outraged by such discrimination. But Hanumanta calmed her down and showed her another way: patience, perseverance and respect. Eventually, he managed to obtain his bank account. By doing so, he taught all of us a good lesson: strength allied with patience and respect are virtues, especially when being attacked and denied basic rights. He had been disrespected and judged for being blind, but instead of becoming a passive victim or reacting with anger, he fought his battle in his own firm but gentle way, and won.
The key stakeholders in the ACR project expressed their gratitude for this pilot and its impact on the schools. Students are developing the habit of reading, they can read with greater speed and ability, and they look forward to reading. This breakthrough is not only due to our technology, but also to the efforts of Hanumanta. “His introduction to the ACR team has been a blessing,” says Dr. Homiyar, our Program Manager and his boss in India. We couldn’t agree more. We want to thank Hanumanta for his dedication to our Bookshare program and for the inspiration he brings to us and the children in Pune every day.
Clotilde Vasconi has a background in political science and international relations and received a Master Degree in Public Administration from La Sorbonne in Paris. She came to Benetech with extensive experience in international organizations and nonprofits worldwide. She works on our business development team, leading institutional fundraising for Benetech Labs.