Dipti Bhatia, Deputy Director at Vidyasagar, Chennai shares the events which honed her advocacy skills and vows to stay the course.
Dipti Bhatia, you are the deputy director at Vidyasagar, Chennai. What is your primary role in the centre?
I coordinate the inclusion program at Vidyasagar. I go in for negotiations with the educational and the differently abled welfare departments of the Government of Tamil Nadu.
Please share with us the journey that brought you to this role…
I have evolved as a person partly because I work in a place as dynamic as Vidyasagar. All this actually started with my grandparents. I grew up with my grandparents and the nurturing they did was very, very important in my life.
I was away from my immediate family because my mom didn’t accept my disability. I learned from my experience that even when a person with a disability is rejected by some, if that person is nurtured wherever they are, then that positive attitude remains. Even if the pain is there, it doesn’t color everything in your life.
My grandmother treated me the same as my aunts and uncles…I learned from them that everything can’t be attributed to your disability. It can also be because of your personality. This is another thing that has been there in my life. Quite unconsciously my grandmother taught me that I should take care of my chores by myself…the rule was that whatever I could do should be done by me. So I got into the habit of doing my own work.
At some point I had to come back home to my parents and this was a much more protective atmosphere. I realize now that here in my parents’ home I would have been sheltered too much.
I was only eight when I came back to my parents’ home. I had to learn to adapt to a new situation where my mom wanted me back because of many reasons. She felt guilty because she didn’t have me for so long, she was worried about what the world will say and I feel because my grandmother said “Come on, Dipti has to be educated!” That’s when they found me a school.
This rejection is something that I still deal with. I am not someone who says things bluntly. So for me, advocacy is negotiation—not going outright and saying “I have to have it my way.” It is not my forte. This has been my character which has impacted how I handle things all my life.
Special schools had a lot of impact on me…they emphasized being grateful to people around you. For example, if my brother came to pick me up they would say how it was such a good deed and I was so lucky! I couldn’t particularly accept that and I kept talking to my grandmother about it. She said that is how some people are and tried to get me closer to my family.
Eventually I went to a mainstream school. It was one of the major instances of self-advocacy. My father went four times and asked for admission at this school and they said no. Then he took his friend who was on the school board at Vidyodaya, but still couldn’t convince the correspondent. Finally my dad took me to one of the meetings.
The school correspondent said, “My teachers are not trained.” I replied, “I finished my tenth standard and I know Braille. All that your teachers have to do is to teach and when they write notes on the board if they dictate I will write. If the teacher forgets I will ask the person sitting next to me.” The correspondent said, “The students may not be nice to you.” I said, “It won’t be such a problem. Besides everyone says Vidyodaya school students are nice.” His next objection was, “You will need special adaptations…” and I said, “Sir, I will use Braille.” Then he asked “How will you move about from place to place?” I was ready, “My dad will drop me or my brother will drop me. And within the school, I know these two girls will help me.”
I realized it wasn’t working out and tried one last time. “Why don’t we try a one month trial period? If you feel your teachers and students have a problem then I will move out at the end of the month. If I think I can’t study or learn then I will move out.” The correspondent agreed to this.
I joined the school. One incident stands out. All the students went away for two hours…to practice for some school function. They forgot to inform me and I didn’t know this. So I waited for two hours by myself. When they came back some girls were shocked saying, “What did we do?” This seemed to break the ice and we became friends. I wanted to sit in the back because these girls were always in the back…when the teacher asked me to come to the front I said “No, I want to sit with them.” They were the ones who responded to me.
Most of the changes in school were initiated by my friends. During tests the teachers asked me to write in Braille and read the answers out loud because they didn’t know Braille. The students were more accepting than the teachers. One of my friends said, “Dipti, teachers ask you to read much later and they won’t even know if it was really your answer , or if you added information changed after we finished our responses! It has to be made doubt free.” This was the girl who came first — we were also good friends. Our teachers realized that she had a point. That’s how I first began to use the services of a scribe.
The same friend came up with another point. “The scribe knows you and she must read for you. So maybe she is answering your questions instead of just taking down your answers.” This led the school to provide a scribe for me in the 11th and 12th final exams. None of this would have happened if my friend hadn’t known how to make the system work.
Reading was an issue and none of the books were in Braille. School didn’t do anything about that. I got very good marks in my 12th and the correspondent was very proud of me. I applied to Ethiraj College for Women and it was smooth sailing. I went prepared for a talk with the correspondent. She looked at my marks and asked why I had low marks in the subject that I actually wanted. I said, “I wasn’t well on the day of the exams. She just said “Ok, try better this year,” and she gave me admission right there. Oh the other interesting part was, she said “You do the studying. Providing all the necessary amenities is our job.” College got me the scribes and anything else I needed. I participated in intercollegiate debates, competition…any emergency they will ask me, “Dipti, will you go?” I studied up to my M. Phil at Ethiraj College.
When I finished I started looking for a job. It was pretty depressing. Everywhere I went they wouldn’t ask questions about my subject, only about my disability. If these questions had been about how I would supervise or manage a class it would have been fine. But they’d ask me questions like, “The class is on the first floor…how will you go to class?” Finally I got fed up! When I was interviewing at Presidency College I said, “I only have visual impairment. I can walk and I have no heart problem. So I can go up and down the stairs to class.”
I got the job in Presidency College. At that time I was volunteering at Vidyasagar. I decided not to take up the job offer and came to work at Vidyasagar instead.
At Vidyasagar I started as a teacher for Rajiv Rajan. When he had to write his tenth exam we needed some provisions in place for him. That’s where my journey to the Government departments started. We made trips to find out how to get a scribe and some exemptions for Rajiv. They directed us to that man over there, or this man over here! When we met with the deputy director of exams, he said “We provide scribes for the blind.” I replied, “I know, but there are people with other issues or disabilities where they need scribes.” He said “That’s not in our rules.” He refused to agree to our requests. Usha Ramakrishnan had accompanied me and she tried to explain it further. “Just suppose your hand gets fractured at exam time. It is just like that. Our student knows everything, but he is unable to write in the standard form. He needs a scribe but his speech can be difficult for someone who is not familiar with him. That’s why we are asking for a scribe who can understand him.”
I knew I had used a scribe but this experience made me realize that I had to look beyond my visual impairment. You know what? The attitude is still the same even now. Every year some child needs some exemption or accommodation and we have to struggle to get ourselves understood. For example a child with autism needed his mother to be nearby and a Walkman to block out noise. He was younger than the age limit for the 8th standard exam. But the board wouldn’t allow that. They tested his IQ and he scored way below his ability. We found an evaluator who let him have more time and use his communication board, gave him breaks, and modified the activities only to provide access. His score showed a big difference and he was able to write the eighth exam with all the exemptions. We had to go all the way up to the secretary in the education department.
The reason I bring this up is because the change so far is not a systemic change. There are no uniform procedures to follow where we can show proof of need and get the necessary clearances. We can do this only when we know people personally in the department. Each applicant’s case is dependent on the individual at the other end. Right now we get a government order—we have to do so for every child individually. For every new thing we have to approach them and start all over again! Besides the impact of the disability discrimination becomes more pronounced because of attitude and barriers.
Can you believe that when I go to the bank, the system doesn’t allow me to use a check book? So I have to fight for it! This is what we deal with…every little thing has to be fought for. There is no understanding that the responsibility lies with the authorities to provide us with access or means to do the same as everyone else. Instead we have to prove our capabilities at every turn.
Systems haven’t particularly changed too much. Disability advocacy has to go a long way still. We haven’t moved from being granted favors to being given equal rights. So next time you come to visit I will be fighting for one more thing!!!