CHENNAI: As we enter the Tamil Nadu Association of the Blind (TNAFB), Tondiarpet, we hear a cheerful banter in the open high-raised veranda. Kanchana, Shanmugam, Lakshmi and Priya were busy stitching and chopping vegetables. Sounds like a home science class, right? Actually, it’s a group of over 30 people with visual disabilities, ranging from low to compete loss of vision, training in orientation and mobility (O&M) by the only qualified trainer for 35 years in India.
Meet Magie Santha Kumari, a teacher, trainer and a mentor who has dedicated her life for the welfare of the visually challenged for over three decades. “I started my career in 1978 as a teacher for the visual challenged persons in Divine Light Trust for the Blind, Whitefield, Bengaluru. I have always felt a close association with them. I don’t see them as people who are different,” shares Magie as she instructs Kanchana to chop the carrots. “If they learn all these skills, nobody can call them different.”
What’s orientation and mobility (O&M) for a visually-challenged? The ability to move in a particular surrounding (a room, road or public place) and understand it is critical for personal development, independence in movement, self-confidence, social integration and safety. “We have different techniques when it comes to mobility. For example, the upper arm and forearm technique is important when a person moves inside a room. It prevents them from getting injured or help them identify objects before coming in contact,” she explains.
Other techniques in mobility include using the cane with touch, touch and tap, and also touch and drag, to identify the terrain and also move with the support of the cane depending on the nature of the surrounding. These techniques are usually taught at the final session of the O&M training.
Shanmugam, a historical studies graduate, shares, “I have used the cane forever. But it’s about using it properly. It’s only after getting training from Magie ma’am that I felt the difference.” One out of every three people with visual disability in the world, live in India (that’s estimated 15 million people). But how many are trained to be self-sufficient and independent? “Very few,” she rues. “The problem is lack of trainers and lack of awareness about O&M. If able-bodied people come forward to learn O&M, they can teach the visually challenged.”
Shedding light about why there’s a lack of trainers in the country, Magie elucidates, “In 1982, I joined YMCA College, Nandanam, as a coordinator for a project called Physical Education for the Blind. I was trained in adapted physical education, adapted home management skills, adapted activities of daily living skills (ADLs) and O & M,” she narrates. “There were other teachers who took the training along with me. Most opted for jobs as physical education teachers in schools and colleges owing to higher pay. But I chose to continue in the field of O&M.”
As we talk, Magie picks up a lined guide and teaches one of her students to write in a straight line. “This guide helps them write in a straight line. Here, a hand-on-hand movement is the key. We also have a signing guide that helps them sign in a straight line. A visually challenged person can learn every ADL skill and mobility skill in 30 days,” says Magie, who currently works at the Clarke School for the Deaf and Mentally Retarded. “Leelavathy Patrick at Clarke School and Raji from TNAFB have been my support,” she adds.
Magie has only one request: “I am willing to teach O&M to anyone who is willing to learn. Before I die, I want to teach these skills to everyone. The only way to help the blind is to train them with skills that can help them be independent. My request is for people to come forward and learn.”