To See Visually Challenged Students Become Top-Rank IAS Officers He Started A Free Audio Library

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Over the years, the integration of visually-impaired individuals has increased in government services. However, they still have to encounter many difficulties, ranging from the lack of accessible infrastructure to the unavailability of materials in a suitable format. For instance, a visually-challenged aspirant preparing for UPSC can only avail 20% of the entire syllabus in Braille. Akella Raghavendra from Hyderabad observed their plight from close quarters when he started coaching visually-challenged UPSC aspirants in 2016.

“Suppose if there are 4 core books in Geography, an aspirant needs to study all 4 thoroughly to have a wholesome idea. Sadly, only 2 of them are available in Braille format. So if blind students wish to read the other 2, they have to depend on someone else to read the entire book to them,” explains Raghavendra, who has recently published the first-ever comprehensive study material for UPSC in Braille and Audiobook format, opening new doors for visually-challenged civil service aspirants across the country.

Akella Raghavendra was almost blinded by an accident

Akella Raghavendra met with a terrible accident which left him bed-ridden for over six months. After a series of surgeries, when he was on the way to recovery, a doctor revealed to him that by some miracle, his eyesight was saved narrowly. Startled with the truth, Raghavendra wondered what might have happened had he become blind. This prompted him to think about the hundreds of visually-challenged young people in India who were denied a bright future, owing to the lack of accessible facilities and infrastructure.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Akella Raghavendra

Once working as an editor and writer in his youth, Akella Raghavendra changed his career direction to start guiding civil service aspirants. He has produced more than 350 successful candidates who are now top-scale government officers, including over 40 IAS officers. Since 2010, Raghavendra has been training the visually-impaired and physically-challenged students for UPSC, Graduate-Level, Bank and other competitive exams. “My dream is to see my visually-challenged students become top-rank IAS officers,” he shares.

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The problems faced by visually and physically-challenged aspirants

“Most of the aspirants are not aware that many visually and physically-challenged bureaucrats are there in the service,” he says.

Their problems can be enlisted as three-fold. First is the absence of a single source of study material in their preferred format. Normal aspirants prepare by compiling information from a lot of UPSC books available in the market. Most of these books are printed on paper. It is near impossible for a blind candidate to scan through a heap of paperbacks and study material and jot down notes. So far, not a single book has been written in Braille. The online lectures are either in audio-visual format or not authentic enough. Raghavendra’s comprehensive book, whose details have been explained below, makes the job much easier for them.

Secondly, for physically-challenged candidates, it is not possible to regularly attend coaching centres, especially if hailing from remote areas. Disabled-friendly transport is still a utopia in most of India.

Lastly, finding a professional scribe to write the exams is a major challenge. UPSC is undoubtedly considered the toughest examination in India. Since most visually-impaired and physically challenged candidates cannot write their own exams, they are solely dependent on scribes. But it is hard to find qualified scribes who can accurately document the students’ answers.

The Braille and Audio-book project

During his trip to the USA in 2016, Raghavendra visited a number of special institutions there. “I was amazed to see they were offering so many facilities to the visually and physically-challenged students,” he shares, “That inspired me to implement something similar for Indian students immediately.”

Started in October 2016, Raghavendra registered the help of his students Sagar and Sivaprakash, both of whom are visually-impaired government officials, now preparing for civil services. Together, they thoroughly compiled around 30-35 must-read books for UPSC into audiobook format.

Soon he translated the book into Braille and prepared 10 master copies of the same. The project was completed around February 2018. It deserves an applaud that he has contributed over five lakhs from his own savings for this project.

“The strength of my book is that I have synthesised the crucial gist of the whole syllabus,” he explains that unlike the already existing audiobooks, his book does not dump a huge burden of information on the students. The book already offers a meticulously researched collection of salient points from all subjects.

“The final version of the book was published after incorporating step-by-step feedback from the two students and many of our volunteers. So the book can be considered fool-proof. I am a bit of a perfectionist you can say,” he shares with a hearty laugh.

So far he has distributed the copies among visually-challenged students and trainers in Hyderabad and wishes that more aspirants are benefited from the book.

The audiobooks are available absolutely free on his website: http://online-ias.com/ and can be accessed from anywhere in India by simple registration. “Now no student with any physical limitation needs to travel far for attending any reputed coaching centre,” he declares proudly. He has also prepared a time-oriented preparation routine, customised for these candidates.

The major roadblocks

“It was not an easy journey to execute this project,” narrates Raghavendra. “I have never considered money a problem. I never hesitate to spend my own savings in helping these youngsters. However, I received very little moral support and encouragement from the people.” he adds with a sigh.

So far Raghavendra has successfully converted over 1500 pages into audiobooks. However, his work is only half-done because another 1500 pages still remain to be recorded. His organisation is actively looking for women teachers with clear articulation and pronunciation to volunteer as voice-artists for the audiobook. If you are interested to be a part of his amazing campaign, you can reach out to Akella Raghavendra at [email protected] or 9849311109.

Akella Raghavendra Foundation

Primarily self-funded, the Akella Raghavendra foundation organises the Life Building Training Program in coordination with schools, colleges, communities and dedicated individuals to promote career guidance among students who do not have access to quality education.

Trained volunteers conduct skill and personality development campaigns for the unemployed rural youth from low-income families. They have successfully organised classes in English, socio-cultural, scientific and environmental awareness in over a hundred schools. Akella Foundation also provides educational support to orphaned and visually-challenged children, alongside reimbursing their guardians with money for clothes, books and other needs.

The founder himself travels to remote areas to deliver motivational lectures encouraging marginalised students with the hope of a decent career.

A substantial percentage of civil service aspirants are visually or physically-challenged. Thousands of coaching institutes all over India provide every possible help to the regular candidates, but only Akella Raghavendra have pioneered the responsibility of these candidates.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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