Started by a group of college students, Koottu now has about 700 volunteers, a voice bank and a scribe bank.

This Kerala volunteer group helps visually challenged students study for and write exams
news Human Interest Sunday, June 24, 2018 - 18:20

In the evenings, there’d be knocks on the doors. Girls at the hostel knocking on each other’s doors – to chat, to talk about their day or to just ‘hang’. But some knocks were not the same, they were desperate pleas. Blind or partially blind students needing help.

Could someone read out their notes, they would ask. It would be worse at exam time, the hostelers noticed. Then these students would frantically try to find a scribe for their papers, to write what they dictated. Some would just give up, missing the exam, missing a year.

Amritha Sivan remembers those days at the University College hostel in Thiruvananthapuram. It was after watching the plight of the visually challenged students that Amritha and a few students from University College and Women’s College decided to put together a system. A system that’d have banks – voice banks, scribe banks – to come to the aid of visually challenged students.

They called it Koottu. Meaning ‘keeping company’ in Malayalam.

That was one and a half years ago. Some of the members have jobs now, some are still students. But they have kept Koottu going.

Koottu was registered as a charitable trust some time ago, with about 11 core members.

“We have about 50 students we try to help – fully or partially blind students, students with cerebral palsy or intellectual disability,” says Amritha, a trustee of the group. Febini M Joseph is the managing trustee, KS Sreejith the secretary and MS Sijin the treasurer.

It began as an unofficial project, Amritha says, with about four to five of them taking the initiative. They saw that most of the students were bright, but just couldn’t write the exams.

“Some of the (visually challenged) students wouldn’t even tell their families when it was exam time. Because then the people back home would try to arrange a scribe, and they may not be able to afford it,” she says.

In Thiruvananthapuram itself Koottu works with the Law College, Arts College, Women’s College and University College. At these colleges, there is a teacher coordinator, a student team leader, in addition to the volunteers.

The first task at hand was setting up a voice bank with recordings of lessons that visually challenged students can listen to and learn. In less than two years Koottu has now gathered about 700 volunteers from colleges in different districts – three colleges from Kottayam and two from Alappuzha are part of the initiative.

“The good thing about a voice bank is that recordings can be contributed by students from any part of the state. They just need to record – syllabus or notes or even study material for competitive exams – and send it to us. We can then give the recordings to anyone who needs it, not just our students,” Amritha says.

But the scribe bank, which they began later, was not so easy to implement. Student scribes sometimes come from far away, they need to be paid travel allowance and a small fee. Most of the time Koottu team members pay it out of their pockets.

“But we need funds for our bigger projects like Oppam where we take our students out. Last Valentine’s Day we took a few of them to the beach. Big FM (radio channel) had tied up with us. At the beach, we saw that they feel the sea while we just watch it,” Amritha adds.

The newest is a project called Mozhi, started as part of the reading month, which helps ‘their students’ read short stories and really small books. It will go on till July 5, Basheer day (death anniversary of legendary writer Vaikom Muhammed Basheer).

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