Bengaluru-based Pushpa Preeya knows what it’s like to struggle to complete your education.
Born to an economically backward family, the 30-year-old says that she was able to complete her schooling and her degree only because of the kindness of strangers.
One of them, an artist she remembers as ‘Vasu’, paid the college fees for her first year. He was a physically disabled man, affected by polio. “I don’t know where he is now and I have no means of finding out. But I knew that I wanted to give back for what he had done for me,” Pushpa tells TNM.
So, in 2007, when there was a call for volunteers to write exams for some visually impaired students, Pushpa responded. In the decade that has passed since, Pushpa has written over 600 exams for the disabled students across Karnataka, free of cost.
While she mostly writes for the visually impaired, she often scribes for those who have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and those who are physically disabled.
Pushpa completed her education via correspondence. It took her many years to finish it because she never knew if she would have the money to pay the next year’s fee. So, she took breaks, worked, saved money, received help from some people and finally finished her BA about five years ago.
None of this stopped her from being a scribe for the disabled. She has written exams for school students, college students, as well as those appearing for competitive exams and government jobs. “I know what it feels like to want to study, but feel helpless because of something that is no fault of yours,” she says.
But she wasn’t always this convinced. When she wrote the first exam for a visually impaired girl, Hema, in 2007, she remembers feeling impatient and dejected. “I had read out the questions to her multiple times. But she kept saying that she didn’t know the answers; she didn’t know anything. It was very disheartening,” Pushpa recalls.
Later, however, she did some research and realised how the lack of facilities and infrastructure for the disabled put them at a disadvantage.
“If they cannot hear or see properly, they cannot take notes in class. There’s no one to explain to them as well. All they can do is record the lecture on their phone. Even then, they may not be able to grasp the concepts well,” Pushpa explains.
Pushpa is now part of a group of people who not only act as scribes for the disabled during exams, but also coordinate and volunteer when possible with some NGOs, who try to make reading material more accessible and disabled-friendly.
Motivation and patience
Pushpa does not have formal training in interacting with people affected by cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. And even though she meets the candidates directly at the examination hall, she says she has always been successful in communicating with them or understanding what they are saying.
“You have to be very patient, and sometimes, even have to motivate them. It is common for them to feel dejected during an exam because they feel like they don’t know the answer. Pressuring them will not work,” Pushpa says. “You also have to concentrate a lot with those who have communication issues in order to correctly understand what they are saying.”
Most candidates however, have been very motivated, and want to attempt each question even if they aren’t sure. An interesting thing she has observed is that the disabled students tend give concise answers. “People around them can be asking for extra sheets. But the people I write for – they do not want to impress. They just want to do their best and give the right answer,” Pushpa notes.
A chance to give back
Apart from wanting to give back, what also drives Pushpa to continue being a scribe for the disabled is the gratitude for having her own senses intact.
“Today, I am able to see, hear and write. If I can use these abilities to help someone else who has just as much talent to one day be independent, why not do it?” she says.
In the group of volunteers that Pushpa is part of, there are people from all walks of life – those in between jobs, students, IT workers, housewives and more. Even though they are a network of at least a thousand people, they do fall short on the requests they receive sometimes. And sometimes, scribes bail at the last moment. Pushpa hopes to make others realise that this is something they can do.
“My brother and I are the only earning members of the family. I don’t compromise on my job to do this. It’s really easy; anyone can do it. You aren’t under compulsions, and you don’t have to compromise on your time. It’s just about giving back,” she says.