George Abraham – blind visionary, belter of boundaries and veteran of the impossible.

Just recently, the Supreme Court of India in the ongoing case of Rajneesh Kumar Pandey v. Union of India, made an observation: “It is impossible to think that the children who are disabled or suffer from any kind of disability or who are mentally challenged can be included in the mainstream schools for getting an education.” In an effort towards unwrapping stories of successes of the mainstream education system, here’s a conversation with one of the glowing examples of mainstreaming:

Maitreya Shah, blind law student and disability rights enthusiast passionate about inclusive education, in conversation with George Abraham, CEO of Score Foundation and the brain behind Eyeway. He founded the World Blind Cricket Council. He’s a motivational speaker and an activist with over two decades of experience in the disability rights domain. He’s an Ashoka Fellow, and has authored a book on Inclusive Education.

MS(Maitreya Shah): Please tell us a bit about your early education. What was your schooling like?

GA(George Abraham): Well, I studied in 4 different schools all throughout my student-life. It started with La Martiniere girls, and went up to Kendriya Vidhyalaya, where I did my class till 11th grade. All these schools were mainstream, and I studied with other non-disabled students in these schools.

MS: How did your parents decide to put you in a mainstream school in those days, when people were inclined towards special education?

GA: My parents looked up to me as a kid who should go in a mainstream school. They believed to cross the bridges when they would come, and not assume the bridges at the very starting point. They were prepared to overcome any difficulties that may arise in my mainstream education.

MS: How was your experience at the mainstream schools you referred earlier?

GA: It wasn’t easy. Because of my visual impairment, I couldn’t read what was written on the board. I couldn’t even read the textbooks. However, my classmates and teachers were very sensitive to the fact that I was in the class, and the teachers used to speak whatever they were writing on the board. My parents used to prepare me for classes, and I even did combine study with my classmates. I used to get a scribe for my exams, who used to read the question paper to me.

All of them at school were sensitive enough; they made considerable efforts to create accessible environment for me, in the time when technology was minimal.

MS: Considering the fact that you faced a lot of difficulties in school, do you still regard mainstream education as a foremost requirement today?

GA: I would answer that with an illustration. When I was in class 9, we had an option to choose between humanities and science streams. As I was interested in mathematics, I chose the combination of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics which was the only option available. The teacher told me I shouldn’t go for science, as Physics and Chemistry require practicals, and Mathematics was taught on the board (which I couldn’t read). We had a meeting with the Principal, and it’s because of his support that I completed my schooling with science stream. This went further to my University education, where I pursued my degree in Mathematics. It was because of all the support I got, that I could pursue my education in a subject rarely chosen by visually impaired people.

MS: What is your take on the current education system?

GA: When we talk about inclusive education, educating a person with visual impairment is a different ball game from educating a person who’s deaf. In short, it is different for different disabilities. The problem is when we try to paint everyone with the same brush. It so happens that only a particular category is looked at, and inclusive education is denied altogether. It is comparatively easy to include visually impaired and orthopedically disabled people in the mainstream education system. It is possible with deaf too, if the communication part is sorted out. This is however not appreciated, because it’s all about ignorance, and a lack of vision. I will tell you how the ignorance factor works.

I was once in a meeting with a senior bureaucrat from the Government, when I started taking notes on my laptop. Seeing this, he asked me: “Mr. George, I thought you were blind?” I said yes, I am. I then explained him all about screen readers, and how technology for the blind works so he said ” So this technology can be used for blind students in my state” He admitted he didn’t know about such a development. You see, there is widespread lack of awareness among the policymakers.

MS: This brings me to the purpose of the present discussion. What do you think about this case of Rajneesh Kumar Pandey?

GA: I’m surprised with the observations of Supreme Court in Rajneesh Kumar Pandey case. I’ve seen the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court taking suo motu action in the case of a blind student who was denied entry in a Railway coach reserved for the disabled. She’s put me on the Committee for accessibility of Railways. She once asked me: “Are you committed for the cause or not?” The approach of Judiciary has been inclusive so far and I am hopeful it will continue.

MS: You’ve travelled across countries, served the society in various capacities, have interacted with so many people. Any final comments on how mainstream education has helped you so far in your life?

GA: Firstly, I think mainstream education introduces you to the mainstream world very early in your life, which also prepares you to deal with your disability. It helps you socially connect with the people. Secondly, people who have worked with me, studied with me, have engaged with me appear to be more sensitive towards the diversity of the society. Every child in the country should learn to respect the diversity that exists in the world. Mainstream education helps in that. So, it is kind of win-win situation for both the disabled and non-disabled community.