Voices

Calculating without sight

A graphic of colour and symbols called Math by Michael Henderson.

Close your eyes and imagine a circle. Make it a semicircle. Make a tangent touch its curve. If you are sighted, you would have ‘drawn’ these in your mind, thanks to your middle school math classes. If you are blind, how do you understand these concepts?

Close your eyes and imagine a circle. Make it a semicircle. Make a tangent touch its curve. If you are sighted, you would have ‘drawn’ these in your mind, thanks to your middle school math classes. If you are blind, how do you understand these concepts?

I began to think about this a couple of years ago during a postgraduate economics class, when someone in the rows ahead caught my attention. One of my classmates was drawing something on the palm of his neighbour, a blind student, and eventually I realised he was ‘drawing’ the graph that the professor was explaining on the board.

I remember marveling at a) the simplicity of the idea of translating a visual cue to a physical one, and b) my classmate’s ability to map the graph in his mind based on what his friend was drawing. My limited, visually-thinking mind would never have registered such a way of learning.

Most of the blind people I’d met so far in my life were students of languages or the social sciences; I’d never come across any blind student of science or mathematics, especially at the graduate level, until I met this classmate. I felt stupid that I was amazed. Of course there are blind people who are interested in studying math and science and of course there’s got to be some infrastructure to help them do that.

What opportunities does India – rife with discrimination, infantalisation and mistreatment of the disabled – offer to blind students interested in visually-dominated subjects such as mathematics, the various sciences, economics or engineering?

The situation is unsurprisingly discouraging. Srikant Bolla from Andhra Pradesh describes how he had to file a case against the State Education Board to pursue science in high school and even so, was denied permission to appear for entrance exams to the Indian Institutes of Technology.  He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to India to set up organisations to support education and employment among persons with disabilities. Kartik Sawhney from Delhi followed a very similar trajectory and is now pursuing Computer Science at Stanford. Both Bolla and Sawhney fought a system plagued with poor infrastructure and poor attitudes.

What opportunities does India – rife with discrimination, infantalisation and mistreatment of the disabled – offer to blind students interested in visually-dominated subjects such as mathematics, the various sciences, economics or engineering?

My friend, now pursuing his second Master’s degree, agrees. What helps is having parents, guardians and friends who support disabled students all the way. Tales abound of parents who take every dogged step with them on their journey and of friends who will helpfully translate visual cues.

The role and influence of teachers cannot be underestimated here, no matter how challenging the institutional environment is. My friend fondly recollects teachers who took the effort to explain geometric concepts using everyday objects – a papad for a circle, a broken bangle for a semi-circle, and so on. Bolla and Sawhney both had teachers who encouraged them all along, joining them in fighting with the education board to allow them to pursue science in high school.

What is key, therefore, is the willingness on the part of institutes to invest in training for their teachers. This will lead to an improved attitude among teachers or school principals to create an inclusive world for their blind students.

But while teachers can help through school, infrastructure for science education at a graduate level for a blind student is a whole other challenge. Without provisions to help them study – such as software to convert text to voice or interpret graphs and mathematical equations – and plain disinterest from the institute to encourage them – many students end up figuring out other ways. If they can, they go abroad to colleges that are ready to welcome them, or change course to study different subjects. My friend says that he would have pursued mathematical economics if India had allowed him the opportunity.

At a time when technology has grown leaps and bounds to help blind people overcome fundamental challenges of reading and writing, it’s ironic and unfortunate that many students who want to pursue science or math are discouraged from doing so for reasons as banal – but powerful and prevalent – as lack of basic infrastructure and people’s attitudes.

With the world shrinking because of access to news and views across countries thanks to the internet, perhaps there is hope. Stories of grit and tenacity from people with disabilities who are working through everyday challenges are slowly helping us get past our myopic view of the world. Maybe, a few years down the line, the only destination for a blind Indian student who wants to be an engineer or a mathematical economist wouldn’t be offshore.

Featured image credit: Math by Michael Henderson

About the author

Vani Viswanathan

Vani Viswanathan is a communications consultant with a focus on issues around gender. She co-founded and edits an online literary magazine, Spark (www.sparkthemagazine.com), and derives inspiration for her short stories and essays from everyday minutiae. She's on Twitter @vaniviswanathan

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