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Sunday, 11 January 2015

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This Tiruchi-based centre has given visually-impaired women a fresh lease of life and professional skills

A handloom operator weaves bath towels. Photo: B.Velankanni Raj
                                             A handloom operator weaves bath towels.

It looks like any quiet home from outside, but the Rehabilitation Centre for Blind Women (RCBW) in Mannarpuram has several hives of activity inside, each an example of the power of education.
Established on July 14, 1975 by noted ophthalmologist and philanthropist Dr. Joseph Gnanadhickam (founder of Joseph Eye Hospital), the centre is devoted to training visually-impaired women in the age group of 18-35 years for professional work.
“My grandfather’s aim was to do something for the blind children left behind by their parents, so he set up a school for them in Puthur,” recalls Mrs. Vimala Moses, honorary superintendent and project director of the centre. “When it became successful, he gave it to the government. Then the graduates of the school wanted jobs, so he started the Bishop Diehl Rehabilitation Home for the Blind, at the back of Joseph Eye Hospital. When that was a success, it was given to the hospital.” The Organisation for Rehabilitation of the Blind in Trichy (ORBIT), a light engineering production unit employing visually-impaired workers was also started on Dr. Joseph’s initiative. But all these were geared towards male workers.
“On his 75th birthday, he said he wanted to do something for blind girls. So with only three students, and with my mother (Mrs. Priya Theodore) as director, we started the school in our own house in Crawford,” says Mrs. Vimala. As the numbers went up to 70, the school was shifted to the present premises, originally the residence of the then-Collector, in Mannarpuram.
Every year, 12 students would be admitted, and exposed to courses in textile weaving, basket-weaving, candle-making, sewing and so on, and given special training in whatever they showed a talent for. The rehabilitated graduates would be encouraged to return to their families, as their skills would have made them capable of earning a livelihood and less of a burden to others at home.
More than a thousand visually-impaired students from within the state and without, have passed through the centre’s portals in the past 40 years, utilising its free services. “For many years, we have been able to manage without charging anything, but now the cost has gone up,” says Mrs. Vimala, who has been with the centre for over two decades. “Though the food for our students is sponsored regularly, electricity and building maintenance are a problem. If the government could help institutions working with the differently-abled, we will be able to do more for them.”
Added to this is the problem caused by the recent government monthly subsidy of Rs.1000 which has taken away the incentive to work. “After graduation many skilled students would simply go and sit at home instead of working,” says Mrs. Vimala. “So for the past two years, we are retaining our students to train the next batch. This also gives us a chance to take up bigger orders. The girls still go home, and collect their thousand rupees every month, but they return to work for us.”
Formal training starts with lessons in preparing incense sticks, as the rolling action also serves as physiotherapy for the hands, says Mrs. Vimala. “Many of the girls who come here have not been allowed to move around at home, so we have to give them lessons in mobility, speech and social manners.”
Visitors who drop in will be able to see one corner of a wide passage with a colourful array of baskets in various stages of completion. Teacher Vijayalakshmi oversees students in canework, basket-weaving, phenyl-mixing and the newcomers getting the incense sticks ready for dipping in the perfume solution. Born totally blind, she is the recipient of one of Dr. Joseph’s eyes as a transplant, which has enabled her to work at the centre for the past 25 years.
Envelopes and office files made by the students are among the new products being offered by the centre. “Before, this was just a training course, and those who took pity on us, would buy a few covers,” says Mrs. Vimala. “But we don’t want pity, we can give the same product as in the market.” The centre has bagged orders from the Indian Overseas Bank, National Institute of Technology – Tiruchirapalli, and several other institutions, through the efforts of its marketing team members (also visually-impaired).
Helped by a sighted master envelope-maker, students are guided by their super-sensitive touch to line up pre-cut envelope shapes into a hand-operated machine to get the fold creases. Another team is in charge of sticking the ends together with flour paste. The end product is checked thoroughly before it is packed in sets of 50.
In a passage, a student is waiting to unmould candles from their metal casts. “The hot wax is always poured by a sighted person, and the rest of the work is done by the students,” says Mrs. Vimala.
In another hall, weaving is in progress on hand- and power-looms, as the centre has got an order to supply bedspreads for the government general hospital.
Towels, doormats and korai grass mats are also woven here, almost all by visually-impaired operators who also know how to set right basic mechanical errors. “A bobbin without thread sounds different, that’s how we find out when there’s a mistake,” says one of the weavers. The centre will be buying another power-loom that caters to different textile sizes this year, in a bid to diversify production.
At the sewing hall, around a dozen students are engaged in stitching sari petticoats and a variety of bags. The neat finish of each product is a pleasant surprise, especially as the master cutter for the petticoats is also visually-impaired. Courses in Braille typing, mainstream school education, baking, music, dance and specially-adapted software are the other attractions of the Rehabilitation Centre for Blind Women’s curriculum. Two in-campus stores sell the products made by the students.

“We accept anyone who approaches us, not just the blind,” says Mrs. Vimala. “But we’d like people also to encourage our students by buying their products.”

Source: The Hindu, 9th Jan 2015

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