The Blind Visionary – Free Press Journal – By Benita Fernando
Sushmeetha Bubna was detected with cataract at birth, a condition that left her visually impaired in 1997. She now runs a computer training institute for visually impaired along with monthly knowledge session catering to their overall development. BENITA FERNANDO gives a peek into her life.
The world is in a tizzy over the yet-to-release Google Glass. There are those for whom the device is straight out of a sci-fi saga of inter-galactic wars and who only hope that the sky-rocketing prices will be more down-to-earth. There are those who believe that such unconstrained innovation heralds the beginning of an apocalypse where privacy is a thing of the past. Somewhere on the streets is a man blessed with augmented reality and holding a cardboard that reads “The End is Near”.
While most people find rapid technological metamorphosis an uncontrollable behemoth, Sushmeetha Bubna is thrilled with the feel of swanky gadgets. Detected with cataract at birth, she has undergone 11 eye surgeries till date due to recurrent retinal detachment, a condition that left her visually impaired in 1997.
From an industrial estate in Goregaon, Bubna runs Voice Vision, a computer training institute that specially caters to the visually challenged. Lessons in computer basics, MS Office and JAWS (Job Access With Speech) are imparted to students here for a nominal fee. The duration of the courses is supposed to last for five months, but there are those students who have taken up to three years to complete a course. A student once needed 6 hours to understand the layout of a Menu Bar. Her first student is now a Senior HR Manager at IBM, Mumbai. Bubna believes that not all visually challenged students are the same and provides them as much individual attention as possible.
For Bubna, establishing Voice Vision at the turn of the millennium was not only a channel to equip the visually challenged with computer skills but also a path towards self -respect. Bubna was not comfortable with the patronising and sympathetic treatment meted out to the visually challenged and the choice of vocational training (such as candle making or cycle repairing) that was provided to them at some institutes in the city. “Once a person is disabled, he/she and their family are made to believe that they are the recipients and are always at the receiving end. There is a need to make people more independent and less dependent on charity,” she believes.
Bubna is enthusiastic about technological evolution and the miracles worked with them. Back in those days, Bubna was rejected admissions to most computer institutes after she lost her sight. Undeterred, she ordered audio cassettes from The Hadley School for The Blind based in the USA from which she learnt computer hardware and “Independent Living for The Blind”.
A range of accessibility devices (liquid level detectors, talking blood pressure machines for example) are available these days (even if at dear prices) to rehabilitate the visually challenged. Bubna’s frustration with her condition is far lesser than it used to be. Technology provides her with independence. “ I don’t need to wait for my mother but can read the number of a restaurant on my own using the screen reading software on my mobile and order the food,” she proudly says.
Since 2008, Voice Vision has also branched out to conduct monthly knowledge sessions to cater to the overall development of the visually challenged. Highlights of their sessions include a First Aid workshop (which taught the visually challenged how to administer first aid) and a workshop to understand sexuality and intimacy. Counsellors and doctors had to be sensitised first to understand the needs of the visually challenged.
One doctor said the participants could “watch” a video on First Aid. When a doctor was asked about vaginal discharges by a participant, she replied, “Check the colour”. The doctors and counsellors suitably adapted their methodology later. Voice Vision also offers matrimonial services for the visually challenged (The website reads: ‘It’s not restricted just for the visually impaired or other physically challenged individuals’). The website won a National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in 2011 for Best Accessible Website.
Sushmeetha Bubna is Director at a software technology firm and handles Purchase, HR and Admin related work. It is a family business but there is no preferential treatment meted out to her. Bubna believes that it is the rigour and the faith that her family put in her that allowed her to be self -reliant. It’s a busy office and she receives calls and messages frequently. A little software installed on her phone reads out the message at a speed that makes English sound like Kryptonese. How does she fathom the rapid sounds? “I need my privacy. I can’t have everyone know what I am reading. I have trained myself to understand at such a speed,” she says laughingly.
Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google in 2009, had commented over privacy issues, “If you have
something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” The duel between technology and privacy is not new. Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren had stated in 1890 that “numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops”. In a world of augmented realities, this may not be a bad time to give sight to the blind.