“Like everyone else, deaf-blind people also have dreams to achieve successful lives and education. Many people assume that, without sight or hearing, deaf-blind people could not lead “normal” lives. We need to remember that no one has a “normal” life or can ever go through anything without struggles.”
I was brought up in a village twenty miles south of Calcutta. The village is mostly filled with farmlands and forests; has no paved roads, vehicles, fancy markets, just a few food bazaars. I was born deaf; the cause of my deafness is unknown. Since eighty-five percent of the village’s population lives in poverty and illiteracy, I am very grateful to have been born to parents who are prestigiously educated. Most people of Indian culture are embarrassed to show their disabled children in public, but my parents–exceptional folks–could understand that my needs were very special. In contrast to most parents of disabled children receiving help and counsel from agencies for parents newly exposed to disability, my parents, as teachers themselves, knew how to handle my deafness without any assistance from outside specialists. At the age of two, my mother taught me how to speak Bengali, my native language. She used many artistic ways to describe how to make the sound of a letter by moving her lips and had me feel her throat for vibrations. I could then speak and lip-read. People who had heard my voice frequently could understand me. When I was six years old, I was sent to a school in Calcutta near my mother’s family’s house. As I was deaf, I had to sit in the front of teachers to be able to lip-read what was said. Unfortunately, I faced many difficulties at this school, because the pupils took advantage and made a mockery of my deafness. They would guffaw at my misunderstandings while I struggled to lip-read and comprehend what the teachers were saying. The teachers also were not aware of the situation and let it continue. At that time I was too innocent to deal with the situation, therefore, I became intolerant and behaved naughtily. The school got disgusted and expelled me after six months. I headed back home in the village.
The Incident One day, for some unexplained reason, my mother decided to examine my sight. She placed her hand on my right eye and asked if I could see in the left eye. I replied yes, and she switched to my left eye. I felt terrified to discover that I could not see a single thing in the right eye. I was afraid to tell her the truth and lied yes. She was clever enough to hold an object before me and requested me to identify it. I guessed wrong. Although she told me not to worry about being blind in that eye, she felt saddened. I was frozen into deep thought about what had happened. I remembered and told her that I was digging soil one day with one older boy from my neighborhood when he accidentally threw soil into my right eye. I never realized that I was blind in one eye because I still could see in the other eye. My father had me admitted to a hospital where I stayed for three months during which time doctors tried to find the cause of my blindness. All the doctors could say was that the retina had been badly destroyed. I returned home where I was accepted to a nearby elementary school. At first the school would not allow my enrollment because they thought I could not compete with other students. My father persistently persuaded the school’s headmaster to let me in. I was then seven and a half years old and i n the first grade. When I was half way through the second grade, I had a fight with a boy who decided to throw ash-like dirt into my eyes. I was hurried to the hospital. The doctor could not recover my vision fully as the retina was already detached. I slowly became totally blind during a three-month period. I became horrified and did not know how to live or move around freely without any sight. I had to quit school. After the incident, my young brother was born, causing chaos for my family to handle at an already difficult time. I was confined at home for four years. At that time, my blindness frustrated me because I did not understand how to express my problems, and became angry and mischievous. I often would sneak out of the house to make trouble while everyone was having a siesta. I would sometimes throw hay through my neighbors’ windows. Other times I would lock their doors from outside by hooking up chains, which meant no one could come out. My father became infuriated and proclaimed that he would kill me by squeezing my neck with a tong. I told him repeatedly that I would not commit the behavior. I failed to keep the promise due to my being too frustrated. Although I was troubled as a child, I found a little peace in creative expression. I developed a hobby by using manual skills to make statues of Indian gods and goddesses through woodworking and ceramics. Since my mother was a talented artist, she always offered to paint these statues for me.
Ray of Hope One day something shook me out of my lonely existence–a dramatic turn from an old being to a new one. During the four-year period my father searched for a school for me to resume my education. Unfortunately, all the schools for the blind in India would not accept me as they had no provisions for working with deaf students. Nonetheless, his unsuccessful endeavor did not last, as not much later, my young aunt met a principal of Behala School for the Blind in Calcutta who had attended Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts as a teacher trainee years ago. She advised her that Perkins was the best possible place for me to obtain my education. Since the government in India would not aid me either financially or otherwise, the process in making arrangements for me to enter Perkins was complicated. In addition, the salaries of the average people in India do not meet the living standards of the United States, buying two round trip air tickets cost one of my parents’ one full year’s salary. My father wrote to Perkins to inquire about obtaining scholarships. Perkins responded immediately and generously offered me scholarships for the time I was enrolled as a student there. The principal of Behala School had acquaintances with several businessmen who were very willing to help pay for plane tickets.
And then my life changed… The enormous step in taking a journey halfway around the globe was an awakening adventure. My life was completely changed–from a life of darkness to light–when I came to Perkins in September of 1983. My father accompanied me as well as to be my translator from English to Bengali. All I knew was English alphabet letters and a few words such as “I love you,” “I want to go to the bathroom,” “I want to eat,” and “I want to go to sleep!” Upon arrival at Perkins and entering my dorm, the first question I was asked was whether I wanted to live alone or with my father. I told my father that I wanted to live by myself to force myself to learn English. From the next day on, I rolled up my sleeves to learn English, braille, and sign language at the same time. My father also learned braille and took courses to acquire new knowledge about how to work with deaf-blind children. I started to see a different world by meeting other students who also were deaf-blind, which encouraged me to adjust to my deaf-blindness. I never imagined from a village with a large population living in poverty and illiteracy that there could also b e people in similar situations as myself who existed on this earth. The only drawback was that I could not communicate easily with these deaf-blind students because of my limited sign language. Originally it was arranged that my father and I be enrolled at Perkins for one year. Since Perkins saw how much progress I was making, they decided that my returning home would waste all the skills I learned. My father agreed to return to India and leave me under the guardianship of my first English teacher. I hardly imagined how many changes I have made in my life, especially from being an innocent child in India to coming to the United States where my knowledge has been broadened. I had many accomplishments such as becoming a leader of the deaf-blind co mmunity, working part-time to earn money, participating in sports, and making many friends with people who treated me equally. During my first few years at Perkins, accommodation was not a concern since the school was already designed to provide a suitable learning environment for deaf-blind students. Each classroom was set up with one teacher, several aides, and four or five deaf-blind students who had different levels of learning abilities. In other words, it was a ratio of one staff member to one or two students. Each teacher was responsible for scheduling his or her aides to work individually with students. The teacher alternated working with each of his or her students on a particular subject throughout the day. During some periods, there would be a “group class” in which all students could participate, such as current events, general discussion, and independent living etiquette.
Higher Education Although Perkins is an excellent place for deaf-blind students who need individual attention, I found myself desiring a more challenging academic environment where all of us studied the same subjects and competed with one another. In 1987, I was determined to join a mainstream program part-time at a private preparatory school called Belmont Hill, not too far from Perkins. At this same time, I was faced with accommodation issues. Belmont Hill School was more than generous to have admitted me at no charge. In exchange, Perkins agreed to supply me with interpreter and transcription services. Going to Belmont Hill provided me with broader knowledge, preparing me to deal with accommodation issues once I entered a postsecondary institution. Throughout my time at Perkins, I instinctively developed a strong interest in helping others who are in my situation. Therefore, my enthusiasm to achieve higher education continued. However, when the time came close for me to graduate with a high school diploma from Perkins, I fretted a great deal about how the ability of services at postsecondary institutions to meet my needs was still unknown to me. Two years before I was enrolled at a university, I searched for different postsecondary institutions where services were available to meet my needs. I paid visits to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNCCH), Gardner-Webb University (GWU ), a private Christian institution in North Carolina, and Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf in Washington, D.C. UNCCH was much too large for me to fit in and have more individual attention from professors and faculty. I chose to go to GWU because it was reasonably sized and the campus facilities accommodated my traveling independently. Of course, Gallaudet seemed a good possibility at first, but it did not turn out that way in reality. Gallaudet University acquired a reputation for leaving deaf-blind students with inadequate services. I have personally known several deaf-blind students including one from Japan, who have dropped out of Gallaudet and successfully completed their educa tion at other universities. One major reason for this may be that since Gallaudet has a large deaf-blind population, it may be difficult to provide all braille materials to each individual. But, if a university only has to concentrate on one or two deaf- blind students, it is more able to provide services to keep up with class assignments. One interesting point here is that, although the deaf-blind population is quite small, deaf-blind students are better off at a general university when the number of deaf-blind students enrolled is small. They receive more proper and personal attention , helping them to succeed in their studies. This may be the reason I decided the services at GWU were not satisfactory. After one year at GWU, I transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR). The security of having access to services made me confident that I would succeed in completing my bachelor’s degree at UALR. Even long before the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), UALR was committed to providing equal access and opportunities for achievement to students with disabilities. The chancellor has made special efforts to address his concern to the faculty and staff members about the provision of necessary accommodation to students with disabilities. In 1994, the chancellor set up a new committee called the Committee on ADA on which I served for five years. Under this committee, I represented the Facilities Subcommittee to make sure the campus is made accessible through modifications such as ramps, electric doors, and adaptive computer equipment. Were I to have remained in India, I could never have succeeded going through school and making it to a postsecondary institution, due to the paucity of services there. I am very grateful for what I have received and that UALR has the accommodations necessary to facilitate my academic progress. I never thought I could perform such accomplishments, but the education I have received has made it possible!
Technology by my side! Still, I am amazed to see how much progress I have made ever since my childhood. I cannot believe that I am now holding a bachelor’s degree in political science from UALR. And now I am working full time since February 1999 as an adaptive technology instructor at the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC)! It has always been my goal to help other deaf-blind people in India and other countries to achieve their dreams to become a batch of successful people. The job at HKNC is a perfect opportunity for me t o move ahead in my life where I can bring myself at the hands of every deaf-blind worldwide who is seeking or is hungry for gold opportunities. I also want to be able to join other people in similar situations as me to obtain the civil rights and equality to which they are.