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Rehmat Fazalbhoy: A wider vision

By Bulbul Pal

Jamnalal Bajaj awardwinner Rehmat Fazalbhoy, visually impaired herself, was the first trained teacher for the blind in India and the first to promote the idea of integrated education for the disabled.

rehmat"How can I ever forget the 29th of April, 1955, when Henley Motors, London, having assured me they would take me on as a telephone operator let me down, citing my 15 per cent vision due to albinism as an excuse?"

Rehmat Fazalbhoy, winner of one of last year's Jamnalal Bajaj awards, recalls this most painful turning point in her life: It was only the latest in a stream of emotional-personal setbacks that Rehmat experienced in her growing years.

Born into a cultured and wealthy Muslim family of Mumbai, the septuagenarian recalls how, as an albino, she heard herself being singled out by strangers commenting on "that little girl with the granny-white hair". "It never failed to wound me, more so than my equally albino sisters, less sensitive than I was..." Another thorn still stuck in her memory: "Since my low vision prevented me from achieving academic excellence, my schoolteacher, thinking me retarded, asked Ma to take me home."

Less frequently, however, Rehmat encountered rare and progressive individuals like her school principal as St Joseph's, Panchgani: "Sr Mary Albin, a British nun, probably saved me from a nervous breakdown by allowing me to move on academically: I was terrified of poor academics."

The rejection by the British firm did have some positive outcome, however. "Angry and hurt, I noticed - across the street -- the offices of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and marched in, determined to show them what a blind girl could do." More softly, she adds: "It was perhaps providence that the RNIB office was situated just there." Welcomed warmly by this institution, Rehmat emerged 18 months later from its portals as India's first trained teacher for the blind. She was ready for India, this time with confidence, and bursting with enthusiasm.

Amazed at the way totally blind people held down responsible jobs at the RNIB in England, Rehmat had travelled widely there, studying the education, vocational and other infrastructure existing for the blind in Britain, and standing first in her class. "My whole perception of life and work had been transformed. As I caught my plane to Mumbai in '57, I had a new reason for living: I was determined to spend the rest of my life working for blind people."

Rehmat's most important mission was to integrate blind children into regular schools. The idea, rejected by a dozen and more schools, was finally accepted by the progressive New Activity High School, after which it was gradually progressively embraced by a larger number of institutions, till today Rehmat -- the 'mother of integration' -- has the satisfaction of seeing integrated education enshrined as a union government policy, wherein funds are allocated to regular schools for the appointment of special teachers for the blind. "I made it a point," Rehmat says, "to place three blind children per class, so that they would have each other for moral support."

Full of other bright ideas, Rehmat introduced, for the first time, Braille-reading competitions as honorary secretary of the Mumbai Blind Men's Association. This, as she explains, "helped raise the standard of Braille reading, initially in Gujarat and Maharashtra." Gradually, the other states followed suit, until all-India competitions became the order of the day. Not surprisingly, Braille writing and elocution competitions were introduced after that.

For Rehmat personally, one of the most heart-warming experiences has been the flowering of one of her protégés into a fine PhD scholastic achiever: "A blind students' school had earlier failed to realise his hearing disability, and wrongly dubbed him uneducable. He became India's first multi-handicapped person to become a Doctor of Philosophy, in 1990."

By now, the West had become conversant with how well western strategies and technologies for the blind were working in India, thanks partly to Rehmat who attended international conferences on and for the disabled. "Then one day, Sir John Wilson, Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind, pointed out to me that awaiting funds perpetually from abroad was not a feasible idea, and that I needed to raise our own funds here." Not sure of her ability in such a new sphere, Rehmat was successful here too: she came up with all sorts of ideas, including a car rally for the blind, in which blind co-drivers guided sighted drivers, golf tournaments, in which blind golfers were so impressive that Anand Mahindra, industrialist, donated them a jeep on the spot; a matchbox competition in which blind children were to fit as many tiny objects as possible into matchboxes ("The winner put in all of 350 objects"), a swimming competition for the blind, and a Mumbai-Pune Derby Train in the racing season.

It is said that if you want a job properly done, give it to a busy person to do and you won't be disappointed, since relaxed people procrastinate. Perhaps that is why

A H Tobaccowala, former chairman of Voltas Ltd, decided it was Rehmat he should approach to help him work for people afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Rehmat explains: "This is a condition in which -- for no known reason -- scarred tissue forms over brain tissue, resulting in crippling conditions. "If it's over the optic nerve, sight gets negatively affected. If it's over motor centres, activity is the casualty." The disease hits the productive age-group of 20 to 40 in most instances, and sometimes children as well. Today, Rehmat is deep into fund-raising as well as awareness-raising, and other aspects of MS, as founder-secretary of the MS Society of India

Yes, it's been a full agenda for Fazalbhoy for over four decades, in the course of which she has channelled her energies into making countless lives easier.

(Bulbul Pal is a Pune-based freelance journalist.)