Change in sight for the visually impaired – George Abraham

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Change in sight for the visually impaired – George AbrahamGeorge Abraham lost his eyesight when he was ten months old. The real problem, he believes, is not blindness. It is the way people react to it. That attitude should change, says the man whose mission is to help the blind live with dignity.

“I was a great fan of [Australian cricket legend] Dennis Lillee and I grew up at a time when India did not have any fast bowlers,” says George Abraham, “As a kid I used to dream of one day being a fast bowler for India, and sending batsmen to the pavilion or the hospital – like Lillee or Jeff Thomson!”

It’s not surprising that a boy had such fantasies – cricket can do strange things to otherwise normal people.

What is amazing is that it was a visually impaired boy who was dreaming of hurling the ball faster than the one of the world’s fastest bowlers. George Abraham, all of eight at the time, had lost his sense of sight after he contracted meningitis when he was ten months old. And yet he grew up to play regular cricket with his friends until he was 12.

“I never realised I was handicapped because my parents and friends never gave me a chance to think so,” he explains simply.

He was in Grade 3, “when a friend from Mumbai who was visiting us [in Delhi] taught me to play cricket.” In many ways it was a turning point in his life because Abraham was completely bowled over by the game. “To this day I am a passionate cricket fan.”

So much so that when he heard of blind cricket, he took up the cause (in 1998) to spread it all over India, even going on to organise the Blind Cricket World Cup. He is the founding Chairman of the World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC) and the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India (ACBI). His one regret? That he could not play blind cricket himself as he was too old by the time he heard of it.

He also loves movies

Equally confounding is his next passion: films. How does he enjoy what is essentially a visual medium?

“I follow the sounds and the dialogue very closely,” says Abraham. “It gives me a fairly good idea of what’s going on. I also have friends – sometimes my wife and my daughters – who explain to me what’s happening on screen, and that kind of gives me the total experience. I don’t watch movies where is there a lot of slapstick humour, which is more visual. I watch films which have a lot of dialogue.” Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan are his favourite actors.

It’s not every day that you come across a legally blind person who has established a non-profit organisation, the SCORE Foundation, which launched Project Eyeway as a one-stop knowledge resource for people living with blindness and low vision; is passionate about cricket and films; ran the 21-km Delhi Half-Marathon in November without any preparation to raise funds for his organisation; sings for a local choir in New Delhi, and wants to act on stage and host a television show.

But then George Abraham is not your regular visually challenged person. He defies all familiar notions. In fact, you would never suspect he was blind until he looks for guidance while walking.

He is a man with many dreams, and one of them is to reach out to every home in India with information related to life with blindness. The object is to share knowledge that is informative, inspirational and empowering.

The real problem

Abraham believes that the real problem is not blindness, it is the mindset. Project Eyeway endeavours to facilitate the required change in mindset that will break the chains that bind the blind.

It all began in 1989 when Abraham was working with an advertising firm after completing his Masters degree in Operations Research. As part of his work, he visited a school for the blind, his first visit to one. “The experience was shocking and I suddenly realised how fortunate I was to be born in a family and a social situation where I had been given the opportunity to be educated and do what I wanted to do,” he says. “I found people with much better eyesight than what I had literally languishing in this particular school. I got the impression that there was no accountability – the attitude was ‘what will they be able to do? After all they are blind’.

“The teaching, if you juxtapose it with children from a similar age group and background in normal schools, was definitely lagging. The curriculum was very simple; there was no real commitment to making the students independent. The general impression I got was that the people with vision impairment are lesser beings.”

This realisation made Abraham see his disability in a different light. “I realised that if I had been born in another family, in another situation, in another section of community, I could very well have been one of these people, languishing,” he says. “That disturbed me, angered me, and also shocked me. That’s when my journey began.”

At that time Abraham did not know what he wanted to do to rectify the situation. “The one thing I was certain about was that I would do something about it.”

Abraham discussed it with his wife as he felt his life was about to change altogether. “We were both young at that time, I must have been 30,” he says. “But there was no doubt in either of us. We decided we would do something about it.”

Making the change

Abraham began researching the problems faced by the blind. “I travelled around finding out what work was being done in the area of vision impairment,” he relates. The more he learned, the more determined he became. And an idea slowly started forming. “There were two things I felt very strongly about at that time – one was, of course, blindness, and the other was cricket,” he says. “That’s how I connected the two – cricket for the blind. The simple reason was that cricket could be the platform which would provide the blind with the opportunity for developing as people. It would also provide the platform for the world to see blind people in non-stereotypical role.”

As blind cricket is played using a ball which rattles, blind players are able to play cricket very effectively and efficiently. “I felt that the game would afford the blind an opportunity for travelling and learning through travel,” said Abraham.

“I also realised that this game had the potential of going global.”

So, that’s just what Abraham did. He started off with the first national blind cricket tournament in 1998 in New Delhi and has not looked back since. “The popularity of the sport in the country increased so much that by 1993-94 we had to split the country into four zones, have zonal tournaments and then national tournaments. In 1993 I announced that by 1998 we would have the first World Cup in India and in 1996 we formally registered the World Blind Cricket Council and also the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India.”

Cricket for the blind became a national annual event in the country. Zonal, national and state tournaments were held and, as Abraham had predicted, the Blind Cricket World Cup was first held in 1998. It was called the Kanishka World Cup.

Having made cricket accessible to the blind in India, Abraham then started looking for other ways to help them integrate into the mainstream.

“I started travelling around the country doing communications skills workshop because I feel you have to be a good communicator to make a mark in life, and of course the blind were just not considered worthy of being imparted such skills.”

It was also a learning experience for Abraham because he was exposed to the realities about life with blindness in India. “This taught me that the real problem is not blindness, it is the way the people think… their mindset,” reveals Abraham.

“Being blind should not really stop you from doing things. What limits the capabilities of blind people is the thought that they will not be able to do anything because of their disability. The focus is entirely on what he cannot do and not on what he can do. Even what he can do is pre-determined by the fact that he is blind.

“They decide, maybe he can sit at a spot and do something, maybe he can do something with his hands… The fact that he has intellect, the ability to communicate well and connect with people and the fact that he can move around, all that is kind of ignored. For them, the important thing is ‘Oh! He can’t see.’ So, the blind person also grows up with that kind of thinking and expects others to do things for him. [He/she begins to believe] that the government needs to provide me with this, my family needs to do this for me, the NGOs need to provide me with this… that’s when the thought ‘I need to get it all free’, starts evolving among the blind.”

Scoring high

The sum of his experiences was the SCORE Foundation which he launched in 2002, from which came Project Eyeway, a knowledge resource for living with blindness. “Our primary target audience were the blind people, but the sighted are also part of this agenda of teaching, reaching out…”

Now, education of the blind as well as the sighted, and rehabilitation of the visually impaired are the goals Abraham lives for. He gives talks wherever he’s invited, to increase awareness, and collect funds to run the Eyeway project, which is funded entirely by donations. He was in the UAE recently at the invitation of Srivalsan Murugan, principal, Our Own English High School, Fujairah, talking to a cross-section of students across the UAE when we met him. His love of life, and sense of justice is what strikes us as he speaks.

“There are goals in my life that are yet to be achieved,” he says, when I ask him what keeps him going. “I guess it is my general love of life. I love what I do. Also, goals which are unfinished. I started learning music when I turned 50, about a year ago, and have started singing in a couple of choirs as a tenor. So, now when people ask me to sing, I do!”

Which happened after his talk to the students of Our Own English High School, Sharjah, when a member of the audience requested him to sing, and Abraham belted out a 60s Bollywood number without hesitation.

He also blogs. “I am not a very regular blogger, but whenever I feel like expressing something I get on to my blog and write my little bit.”

He has also been commissioned to write articles for newspapers.

“I’ve written columns for newspapers such as The Asian Age, especially around some events, like the 2003 World Cup in South Africa,” he says. He also spends a lot of time reading. “When I was growing up I very much wanted to read but books were not available in an accessible format,” he explains. “Whatever little books I read were what my parents, my brother or my friends read out to me. Now that I have access to technology I ‘read’ like a mad man. I have several (audio) books on my laptop.”

Abraham’s mission remains the same: to ensure that the visually impaired are given the same opportunities as the sighted. He also has dreams of hosting his own television show, and would also “like to become a performing musician, and a travelling speaker.” That no one questions his dreams is proof that he’s succeeding in his mission.

What is Project Eyeway?

Project Eyeway began as a website, www.eyeway.org. “In 2005, we launched a weekly radio programme called Eyeway-Yeh Hain Roshini Ka Karava (Caravan of light) broadcast weekly to around 50 cities in India, through the All India Radio and its FM channel,” says George Abraham, CEO, Score Foundation. The radio programmes started generating interest, and incoming phone calls made them operate an Eyeway help desk.

“The help desk takes phone calls from the blind and visually impaired people and their parents who call up and ask questions related to life with blindness,” says Abraham. It could be to do with orientation and mobility, with careers, or just the handling of a mid-life crisis. “For instance, if someone loses their eyesight at the age of 35, both they and their family are shocked, shattered,” says Abraham. “They need to talk to somebody who can talk sense and help him or her move forward step by step.”

Eyeway also operates an SMS alert service where “we send out information on a regular basis whether it is career alerts, job alerts, technology updates, events, training programmes and so on.” It also organises goal setting training workshops for young blind people, “because you need to have a goal in life and you need to make plans, and objectives, set short-term, long-term and medium-term targets so that eventually they meet their target by the age of 45 to 50.”

Initially, the programmes were only in Hindi and English, but now with many listeners in non-Hindi speaking areas the organisation is in the process of setting up Eyeway in the state of Orissa in partnership with a local NGO to broadcast in the local language.

Similar plans are afoot in the north eastern state of Meghalaya. “Eventually, we envisage that Eyeway should be available for every Indian to use as a resource when it comes to living with blindness,” says Abraham.

Eyeway is also in the process of setting up an advocacy cell to work with schools, to make regular schools inclusive. “Why have parallel systems when the blind can be part of the mainstream?” asks Abraham.

DID YOU KNOW:

  • Distance a normal eye can see up to: 60 m
  • Distance a legally blind person can see up to: 6 m
  • More than 82 per cent of all people who are blind are 50 years of age and older
  • About 314 million people are visually impaired worldwide, 45 million of them are blind
  • Most people with visual impairment are older; females are more at risk at every age, in every part of the world
  • About 87 per cent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries
  • Cataract (47.9 per cent) remains the main cause of visual impairment all over the world, except for developed countries
  • More than 90 per cent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries
  • Females have a significantly higher risk of being visually impaired than males
  • Globally, in 2002 more than 161 million people were visually impaired, of whom 124 million people had low vision and 37 million were blind

Achievements

  • In 1996 Abraham was chosen to run in the Olympic Torch Relay in the Atlanta Olympics
  • Received the Sanskriti Award in 1993
  • Received the Rotary Vocation Award in 1996
  • Awarded the Rotary for the Sake of Honour Award in 2003
  • Elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2001
  • Chosen as a Limca Book of Records People of the Year for his contribution to Blind Cricket and his work with Project Eyeway in 2007
  • Featured on Discovery Channel’s Discovery People
  • Was part of the Aviva Forward Thinkers 2007 TV campaign
  • Featured on Channel 5’s Paul Merton in India, which aired in the UK in 2008