DEFTLY WIELDING HIS iPhone, 35-year-old Mahesh Narasimhan replies to congratulatory text messages on his handset. He sends emoticons with hand gestures through a software, and the replies are verbal. Narasimhan is practically blind and the congratulations are pouring in after he topped the Executive Course in Management and Strategy at Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), Delhi University this year. What is noteworthy is that two years ago he had been denied admission to the same course and had to struggle his way in, joining after classes had already commenced.
At the age of seven, Narasimhan has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, a medical condition in which the macula, a part of the retina that controls one’s ability to read, drive a car or read faces, gradually degenerates. Since then, his ability to see has reduced to about 10 per cent and he describes his vision as hazy and blurry. The condition usually afflicts ageing adults, but Narasimhan and his elder sister might have inherited it. The condition can be traced eight generations back in his paternal lineage. “It meant leaving behind a lot of things—my love for playing cricket and ambition to join the Army being some of them. I have overcome several hindrances and setbacks with determination. I was not prepared to take this lying down,” he says of the disability.
After working in the press department of the Oberoi group of hotels for over eight years, in 2014 Narasimhan had applied to the two-year programme at FMS. After a written test and an interview, he found out that one visually handicapped and four orthopedically handicapped candidates had been selected and his name was first on the waitlist. When he read the Persons With Disability Act, 2005, he realised that he was eligible for a seat since the law reserved 3 per cent seats for disabled people.
“As per the law, a total of six candidates should have been selected and not five,” he says. “Also, the 3 per cent reservation includes 1 per cent each for the blind, hearing and speech impaired, and persons suffering from loco motor disability or cerebral palsy. When I dug a little bit deeper into the law, I found out that the law reads, ‘not less than 3 per cent reservation’. But the common implication is taken to be a maximum of 3 per cent. I knew this was wrong at many levels and I wanted to fight it.” Assisted by Abraham George, who runs a helpline for the visually challenged in Delhi, Narasimhan took his case to the Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities in Delhi. He won his way back into the course, but his batch had already started two months earlier. This spelt another challenge.
“I was stumped when I realised that most class lectures were done through PowerPoint presentations. I could not read the bar charts in Statistics lectures and had to rely on listening to my professors,” he says. Already juggling work with classes, Narasimhan discussed his condition with his teachers. “I had already missed out on classes and could not understand much through the presentations. They cooperated with me,” he adds.
Some of his classmates were helpful as well, and his father would read out class notes prepared by friends to him every day. “My father retired as a Zoology professor and had no clue about Finance and Statistics, but he would draw flow-charts and simplify the notes for me to understand. I helped him with basic concepts first so he could help me study. He would draw one diagram or graph on one page so that I could see. He would draw it in stages and show it to me at every step so that I could understand. Then, from my understanding, I would guide my father to draw it. This is also how I practised to guide a scribe, so that at the time of exams, I would be clear with my instructions,” he says.
Narasimhan believes that support is of utmost importance. “The ecosystem must be more conducive. For instance, my professors would read out the presentations for me. That little help is sufficient,” he says. He recalls his childhood, particularly the time when he was diagnosed with the condition, and how from being the best math student in class he became really poor at it. “Most of my friends would not understand [what I was going through], and it was very frustrating. It was only after four or five years that I understood and accepted what had happened to my sister and me,” he says. His sister went on to become a professor of Geography. Narasimhan adds that in terms of the physical environment in schools and colleges, there is still a lot that needs to be done for the visually impaired. “We need proper pathways marked, there should be ramps along with stairs, and it would help if the classrooms are placed on the ground floor instead of higher floors with staircases. The seating arrangement in class should be made keeping in mind the comfort level of the visually challenged student,” he says. To top his FMS batch, he had to prove himself twice over. First, to the authorities that he was capable. And then, “I also had to live up to my expectations of myself.”