Young disabled woman sets up school for visually impaired children

6 March 2015

Ashwini teaching a blind student to use a computerAshwini Angadi is a 24-year-old visually-impaired young woman from a rural community in India. After overcoming discrimination from teachers and her community to receive an education, she has now set up a school for visually impaired children.

Ashwini lives in a society where women face multiple discrimination. Their low status and disability often means disabled women are considered a greater burden on the family. With few education and job opportunities, disabled girls and women become financially dependent and extremely vulnerable.

From Young Voice to award-winner

Ashwini was educated at a charitable hostel then went on to university in Bangalore, graduating in 2012 at the top of her class. In the process she became one of Leonard Cheshire Disability’s Young Voices campaigners, giving her the confidence to campaign for inclusive education. In 2013 she received a UN Award from Gordon Brown MP on Malala Day and in June this year she will be presented with a Queen’s Young Leaders award our patron, by Her Majesty The Queen.

‘I was fortunate to get an education,’ says Ashwini. ‘From the age of four I went to a charitable hostel but I was often excluded from lessons due to my impairment and this left me feeling isolated.’

Overcoming challenges 

‘I want disabled children to have access to what I was denied,’ Ashwini says. ‘For example, someone might say a blind person cannot work on their own or a disabled woman cannot deliver a baby due to her disabilities. And I have seen some unacceptable things — such as young disabled women who were not cared for by their parents. Some were being made to sit at home in the corner alone, shut away from visitors. 

‘These negative views mean that disabled children and young women may miss out getting an education and therefore the opportunity to get a job and provide for their family. 

‘Although I have experience in teaching it was extremely challenging opening a school for children with visual impairments. The biggest challenge that I faced was finding children with a visual impairment who were allowed to enrol in the new school. This involved travelling to remote villages which often were not accessible by public transport. On some occasions, I had to walk four to five kilometres — often up steep hills and on roads covered by stones.

‘When I knocked on doors to speak with parents, I was rarely offered a glass of water, or a place to rest. Rural and underprivileged people do not usually entertain visitors from the city as they are scared and believe they will be cheated or robbed. The only way I was able to get them to listen was by showing them stories about my UN Youth Courage Award that had recently featured in the local newspapers.

‘It was hard work finding an accessible building for the school. But, with the help of my parents, I managed to find a space to rent that we turned into three classrooms.’

Ashwini teaching a class of students

Something to be proud of

Five-year-old Thanushree has rapidly progressed since being taught at Ashwini's school. Previously, she suffered discrimination from her parents. She couldn’t talk and lay on the floor 24 hours a day with no emotion. She would not stand up and was unable to recognise her parents. They assumed she had a mental and physical disability, but once Ashwini's school assessed and spent time with her, they realised she was blind. Other than that, she was perfectly healthy.

She joined the school and initially spent time learning small words. Now, she can sing beautifully — she loves Sanskrit songs, which can be difficult to pronounce. Thanushree also recognises all staff and students in the school and has learnt to laugh and cry.

‘It is incredibly moving and something we are very proud of here.’ — Ashwini

‘I believe that children of all abilities — disabled or not — should learn together as one,’ says Ashwini.

‘I am passionate about disabled children going to school, as an education helps them to get a job and provide an income for both them and their family. It also gives them a foundation to make their own way in life and fight for their rights, empowering them to earn respect from their family and friends.’

Ashwini’s Belaku Academy in Karnataka, India, currently has 12 visually-impaired children aged four to 12 and two full-time qualified teachers.

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I am very moved by Ashwini's story. If I can help her in any way please let me know.

I am very moved by this story. Ashwini, you are a very courageous and strong woman. I am full of respect for you. Thank you for helping the poor, neglected children to receive an education. I will tell my friends and family about you and your hard work.

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