Every year, among the long list of students getting admitted into the countrys top educational institutions are the about half-dozen names who make it through the Differently Abled category. While a lot is written about the perseverance it must have required on their part to overcome problems and clear the Common Admission Test (CAT) to get into the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), we know very little about how they cope with the extreme rigour of b-school life once they are in. Perhaps, many of us even conjure up visions of some kind of extra-special treatment or leniency meted out to them in an environment full of some of the most brightest and gifted youngsters of the time.
While visiting the IIMs at Calcutta and Lucknow, PaGaLGuY stopped by the dorms where live Suresh Reddy and Vishal Kumar Jain, both visually-challenged, and the sheer effortlessness of their existence at these schools came to us like a slap in the face.
Vishal Kumar Jain, IIM Lucknow
Sitting at his computer inside his hostel room at IIM Lucknow, as 26-year-old Vishal Kumar Jain operates the keyboard, a digitally-generated voice promptly reads out the text written on the screen at a speed that you would find hard to comprehend. Start! Programs! Internet Explorer!.
Thats Jaws, a screen-reading software which is literally the backbone of my academic life here, describes Vishal, who hails from Bellary, Karnataka. Since he cannot see what is written on the screen, the software reads out whatever he types, or the text that appears on the screen, whether in programs, ebooks or websites, making the usage of computers as effortless for him as for any person with normal eyesight.
Indeed, he owes computers a lot for helping him overcome obstacles that would otherwise have stopped him from realising what he was really made of. Vishal had to leave school after class 9th because his vision --- which had started deteriorating due to the onset of Retinitis pigmentosa when he was five --- had nearly gone. He spent the next three years working in his fathers business, even as two of his elder siblings too started reaching the advanced stages of their own eyesight problems.
That was when I by chance came to know about this computer training at Bangalore, which I joined. There I learned how to use computers and know a lot of things about how I could overcome my condition, he says.
The Internet helped him get in touch with other visually challenged people and volunteers who helped him learn about all the options he had for his future and the tools and aids available to him. "For example, I had been misinformed earlier that I could not study science in school as conducting laboratory experiments required functional eyesight. I later learned that it was not true, and I could have very well entered the science stream," he says. But by then, he had finished commerce at high school and was studying BCom at a Bangalore college.
"During my graduation, I sat for placement interviews of six multinational companies and cleared all their rounds. But none of them gave me a final offer. Everybody else around me was getting job offers, but I wasnt despite clearing all the rounds. I later came to understand that these companies had very little knowledge about how to handle my case, and had decided not to hire me," he recalls.
IIM Lucknow too had initially come across as unprepared to comfortably host someone with the kind of peculiar special needs as Vishal.
"I had to struggle at IIM Lucknow for a few initial days because I was the first person on this campus who had a different set of requirements. There had been one visually challenged person here before me but he had enough vision to read, write and see sufficiently. My vision on the other hand is 99% gone, it's as good as none," described Vishal.
Vishal spent the first few days talking to the head of every department individually so that they could understand his needs and then put in place the necessary policies and arrangements.
"Buying the software 'Jaws' was one of the first things we did after Vishal joined. It converts printed books to ebooks and then reads them out to him," says Prof Ajay K Garg, IIM Lucknow's dean in-charge of student affairs. "We also put him in the hostel which had ramps everywhere and was closest to the teaching block and library complex," he adds.
"The scanning process often means that my books arrive 2-3 days later than that of others, but it makes all the material accessible for me," says Vishal.
How Vishal works with the IIM Lucknow course material (Video: PaGaLGuY.com)
Once equipped with these basics, Vishal was all set to be on his own. Not only are his professors happy with his academic performance, Vishal has been an active participant in the institute's non-academic activities such as being part of the college band '3.4' (Vishal can play six percussion instruments and has toured the US as part of a performing music group) or joining 'Bhavishya', the institute's social initiatives club. "Even before I had joined IIM Lucknow, I had started an Internet platform to connect disabled people with volunteers who wanted to help them. Social initiatives have been very close to my heart," he says.
In order to give him a level playing field with the rest of his classmates, the institute has made special arrangements to help him take exams. "We have given him a dedicated scribe who writes exams on his behalf. In some courses, we allow Vishal to give oral answers rather than written during the exam," explains Prof Garg.
Vishal playing the tabla at Aarohan, a cultural programme at IIM Lucknow
The rest Vishal makes up for with will-power and determination. "Moving around in the campus is sometimes a problem because the size or the length of physical spaces in the campus are not even. For example the borders of the roads are uneven so it can be tough to judge where the road ends. But I have got used to it by now. Friends have been very helpful, whether in helping with mobility or the studies," says Vishal who wants to join a company in human resources or other such functions after finishing MBA.
Asked which songs he enjoys playing the most with his band, he laughs and says, "Any AR Rahman song!"
Suresh Reddy, IIM Calcutta
When he was thirteen, an accident cost him complete loss of vision. However, this did not stop him from living the dream of studying at a top management college in the country. Hailing from a small town in Andhra Pradesh, 26-year-old Suresh Reddy is the first ever 100% visually-impaired Post Graduate Programme (PGP) student at IIM Calcutta.
Suresh is a constant subject of conversation among professors and students, which makes any visitor to the campus want to meet him. Located in one corner of the ground floor of the hostel, Suresh's room is well kept, neat and in all aspects similar to that of any other male student.
It is evening and Suresh is busy at work on his after-class assignments that take up most of his time at the institute. It is the quantitative and math bits that I find the most difficult. With my disability, it is difficult to manage subjects that have anything to do with numbers, Suresh says unabashedly, simultaneously working on his laptop. However, besides the help provided by 'Jaws' (the same screen-reading software that Vishal uses) which he has been using since the age of thirteen, his colleagues and the institute have been extremely supportive in making his time there as smooth as possible, he adds.
Suresh in his hostel room, demonstrating how he works with Jaws
Although IIM-C has hosted to students with visual disability earlier, this is the first time that the institute has a student with 100% visual disability. Four months ago, the institute acquired a scanner for converting all text material into its electronic versions. A designated person has been made in-charge of making these conversions to make study material accessible for Suresh.
In addition, IIM-C is in the process of acquiring a tactile adaptation kit. This kit helps the visually challenged visualise graphs, tables and matrices and would be useful for Suresh in understanding subjects such as risk management, which contain a lot of graphs. The tactile adaptation kit will form a 3D braille representation of the graphs, which will help Suresh understand and comprehend graph-heavy subjects in a better manner.
His classmates have been a great support system for Suresh during the course of his first year at the institute. Initially when I came to the institute it was obviously difficult to manage life in such a competitive atmosphere, but slowly I have learned my way around, Suresh told PaGaLGuY. He added that since he had difficulty understanding some of the material taught during the lectures, some of his classmates took out the time to tutor him in the evenings.
I have friends across all courses who come to teach me different subjects, Suresh said, adding that he had requested the student committee to help him out once and since then there had never been a shortage of people willing to spend time with him on academic work.
According to his classmates, Suresh has no trouble performing in any of the projects or class assignments handed out to the students. Explaining his experience with Suresh as a part of his group assignment, Jandeep Singh said that Suresh took an active part in all the discussion regarding the final presentation that we were scheduled to put out. He added that the group had forwarded Suresh the slides from the presentation that he was supposed to present in the class. Suresh read them with the help of his software JAWS and explained the slides impeccably during the final presentation.
Suresh Reddy (top-left) in class at IIM Calcutta
Still unbelieving of the fact that his dream of coming to a premier management college in the country had actually come true, Suresh says that after his accident at a young age, his parents tried to dissuade him from studying further. However, he was more resolute than that. When he was 14, Suresh went to Bangalore where he joined Shree Ramana Maharishi School for the blind. The school was instrumental in building up his confidence in his capabilities, Suresh says. He went further on to complete his graduation from Bangalore.
Suresh had also been a member of an NGO called Enable India that helped disabled people get a job. Immediately after completing his graduation, Suresh got a job as a Knowledge Marketing Analyst at Catalyst Management Services, where he worked for around a year. From there he shifted jobs three times before landing up at Wipro where he was an instructional designer. In all, Suresh gathered six years of total work experience in various companies and experimented with various job profiles before joining IIM-C.
During college itself, Suresh had enrolled into the Samarthanam Trust that enabled higher education amongst disabled people. While his career progressed, Suresh used to attend weekend lectures by corporate professionals arranged by the trust. Empowered by the lectures, Suresh attempted the CAT for the first time in 2008 and managed 74 percentile. Suresh attempted the exam two more times before he scored in the 94.7 percentile and got a call from IIM Calcutta. Impressing the faculty members by his sheer hard work, Suresh was able to convert the interview call into an admission call and today he is on the verge of successfully completing his first year as a PGP student in the institute.
Although Suresh is extremely fond of listening to music and going for walks, a competitive atmosphere and a tough schedule does not leave him any time to relax. So far my journey has been a mild struggle as far as the studies are concerned. Hopefully the second year will be a more relaxed one for me, Suresh says.