The Strength Within |
Ashfaq Wares Khan
Shammi's hands felt around the desk, put on her headphones, located the cassette player and inserted the audiotape.
The tape played her story -- a story of her resilience and strength that gave heart to her spirit through the ordeal as a visually disabled student trying to study in Bangladesh.
But the education system, which, like most people in the country, take for granted the deprivation of the visually-challenged who cannot use printed materials, offered her little support.
Blind from birth, Shammi's impairment did not stop her from flying through primary school in Barisal.
"It was easy through primary school, since they (the government) had given us Braille textbooks," Shammi recalls. "But from high school onwards we did it ourselves."
The "it" Shammi refers to is the arduous task of extracting the required chapters from the textbooks to transfer them on to either an audio cassette or Braille, a writing system read with the fingers by people who don't see.
She, like the majority of the visually disabled in Bangladesh who seek secondary education or higher, had to pay a hefty sum to hire someone to record the chapters onto an audio cassette or have the chapters read out so she could put them on Braille format.
"It would be very rare for me to find a good friend or a relative to regularly record the book or read it out very patiently to us. I think it was and still is the same for many of us," said Shammi. Some of her friends, who also happened to be visually-challenged, nodded in agreement.
These days, Shammi, a second year student of Bangla at a college in Dhaka, and her friends congregate at a small building in Mirpur, on the outskirts of Dhaka, which acts as their portal into the world of knowledge and discovery. The small building houses the "Talking Library", which holds over a thousand books in Braille and audio tapes.
An initiative of the Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organisation (Berdo), the library, with over 150 members and many others frequently using its resources, has taped textbooks on grammar, training, training manuals, general knowledge and literature and typed largely textbooks on Braille.
Most records held by organisations working with the visually impaired suggest that such students usually dropped out after primary school and at best after high school, because of a lack of education resources.
"I would not be confident of continuing my education if I knew that I might not get this support of resources," says Shammi. "I do not stand a chance against other students unless I get access to the books and I cannot afford to pay other people to record all the books required at this level," adds Shammi, who like most of the students also comes from insolvent families.
The bringing of visually-challenged students together, Shammi says, gives them a rare opportunity to share notes and more importantly, experience of how to cope with common problems.
Shammi giggles and continues, "We had never read a novel, even when for Bangla at school we had to analyse the characters and the plots, we never actually knew the book."
Shammi and her friends explained that they could only afford to record what is needed -- the answers to questions for exams -- everything else, including literature had to take a back seat.
The talking library, reads out not only the knowledge of the technical but also opens them to the world of literature, tells them the stories that narrate the same resilience and strength that they exhibit through their lives.