RASHMI OBEROI | 20 MARCH, 2015
A Star Named ‘Tiffany’
Leading to Light
In faraway Trivandrum... Now known as Thiruvananthapuram, in the state of Kerala, a Non-Profit Organisation by the name of Jyothirgamaya exists. It was founded in July 2014. Their motto: “If blind cannot go to school, let the school go to them”. Their mission is to empower the blind through individual need based training and conducting “Road to Independence” training camps for the blind in all parts of Kerala. The young lady behind all this is a shining star and guiding light for all those who are visually challenged as she was born with the very same impairment herself.
Meet Tiffany Maria Brar, who initiated this new project that was a mobile blind school. She named the project Jyothirgamaya (Leading To Light) Mobile school for the blind. “If blind cannot go to school, let the school go to them” is at the heart of the novel initiative. A pioneering effort in Kerala, Jyothirgamaya is a mobile school for the blind that offers training to blind children and adults at their residence. Meaning ‘leading to light’, Jyothirgamaya seeks to not only lead the blind to live enlightened and holistic lives, but also attempts to give the sighted population a new perspective on how to look at the blind.
One of the first obstacles in the way of the blind to gain independence and learn the necessary skills required to adapt is the inability to move around freely. Therefore, many times they are unable to travel to the school or training centre. Keeping this in mind, Jyothirgamaya lives by the concept that “if the blind cannot go to the school then the school should go to the blind”. Their vision is to see a barrier-free environment where the blind are empowered to use their potential, contribute and be at the forefront of society. Tiffany aims to give computer training to the blind and place them in iTech companies. She conducts camps to teach blind mobility and self-confidence, teaches them English, and helps in making them self-reliant and lead lives with dignity.
Tiffany was born in 1988 into a military family with a multi-cultural background with her father being a Sikh and her mother Anglo-Indian. Six months after her birth, it was discovered she was visually challenged and there was a problem with the retina that could not be rectified. Her parents consulted the top doctors but in vain. Due to her father’s military transferable job, there was no continuity in her schooling. There were both advantages and disadvantages to such a life. While she became multi-lingual and learnt five Indian languages, the school environment was not sympathetic to her. It is a sad fact that in this country, most people are not kind to those with disabilities. Tiffany’s teachers had no idea how to handle her and children were mean. There was a point where she felt that she was no good in anything as she was made to sit in the back benches and forgotten about in class. Another challenge was that she never got her Braille materials on time. Blind organisations took their own time to get things printed and this problem was faced by many blind people in India. Tiffany usually received her notes just a few days before her exams or at the end of the year.
Finally, Tiffany was enrolled into a special school in Darjeeling where everyone was treated the same and no special treatment for anyone. Tiffany longed to live like other blind children and not be protected and sheltered at all times. She finally learnt some mobility skills and also learnt the Braille fluently. Life often is not kind and a series of cruel twists and turns saw Tiffany’s father on the front during the Kargil War and then soon after, her mother’s deteriorating health which led to her demise further led to Tiffany’s anxieties. Often left at the mercy of domestic help or the blind school hostel Tiffany was frequently made fun of and bullied by the partially sighted children.
Tiffany then pleaded with her father to take her back to Kerala where she always felt a connection with and was at peace. She stayed there in the hostel and studied in the government integrated school. There were blind and sighted students in the school, and the school was good. The teachers were very kind. Tiffany then moved to JMJ Convent Athani, Thrissur and finished her tenth standard and then onto Wellington as her father was posted there. She took up Humanities and completed her CBSE examination with good results. Her friends helped her a lot during this stage and their domestic help who was not highly educated but very compassionate and taught her important daily living skills. After her father’s retirement, they returned to Kerala and Tiffany enrolled herself in the Government College for Women, Trivandrum with English Literature as her main subject.
By now Tiffany was quite proficient in her daily living skills but not in mobility. She was often isolated by her classmates when they planned outings together. Tiffany had to depend on a sighted person to take her out. It was then that she came across the co-founders of Braille Without Borders and Kantahri. Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg helped her see the positivity in everything and she was greatly inspired. Tiffany recalls an incident when she went to meet them. “My father was holding my hand very tightly, making sure I didn’t fall, as we were being given a tour of the campus which was under construction at the time. Sabriye suddenly asked me whether I would like to use her cane! I was delighted. Though I knew what a cane was I had never used one properly. I took the cane which was offered to me, left my father’s hand and began to walk on the uneven path leading to the dormitories of the future Kanthari participants. For the first time I ignored the advice of my father who said, “You cannot go up there! It is dangerous. There are no rails… You will fall down… Hold my hand”. After this incident I felt liberated, and I found the road to my independence”.
Tiffany was offered a job at Kanthari as a receptionist and began to work in 2009. She was given many chances to voice her opinion and learnt computers and how to handle technology. She finally started traveling around Trivandrum, and gradually started making bus and train journeys outside Trivandrum, by herself. During her time at Kanthari, she discovered there were many blind people who were still hiding in their comfort zones, with no one to bring them out. She suddenly felt an inner urge to do something for them. She found out about special education courses, and enrolled herself at the Ramakrishna Mission Faculty of Disability Management and Special Education in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Though the institution was specialized in all types of disabilities, she found that she was the only blind student studying there at that time. The faculty and the management were very cooperative, and good towards her. They made sure she got her notes on time, and she was ever ready to help those who required assistance, in teaching the other sighted candidates who took the Braille course, cane techniques and other skills by the professors. She passed her B.Ed. in Visual Impairment Special Education with reasonably good results.
After her return to Kanthari, and after having a few discussions with Sabriye, and others working in the field of visual impairment, Tiffany decided to initiate a new project… A mobile blind school. She started traveling around the Trivandrum area in search of blind people who had not received training; and got many calls enquiring after her services. She named the project Jyothirgamaya (Leading To Light) Mobile school for the blind and thus Jyothirgamaya was born. She has now been running this project and has trained numerous beneficiaries in Braille, mobility, daily living skills, and basic computer use. In December 2012, Tiffany was awarded with the Kerala State Disability Award by the Kerala government.