Keep Listening

We would like to share a post from one of our Compassionate Engineers, Minnar Xie. When she and her teammates arrived at the Mathru School for the Blind to help TechBridgeWorld launch the Braille Tutor comparative study, the first thing she and her teammates did was to build trust with the school. And one way to do that was to Keep Listening.

Minnar observes a Mathru teacher use the Braille Writing Tutor

June 3, 2015 – Minnar Xie

It’s been an incredible 10 days in India so far, and the team is just beginning to get settled. Last week we toured and met the teachers at both the Mathru School for the Blind and the Mathru Center for the Deaf and the Differently Abled (colloquially referred to as “the school” and “the center”). While the school has been open since 2000, the center recently opened in 2012. They are 4 km apart; just far enough to be make traversing the distance something worth planning around.

For the first week the team lived in separate locations, the boys Erik and Amal were staying in a guest room at the school while Maya and I stayed at the center. This meant that Maya and I were shuttled back and forth each day from the school where we worked and the center where we lived. These twice-daily 15-minute drives gave us an opportunity to gain a glimpse into the life of Ms. Muktha, the founder and headmistress of both the school and the center.

Born in raised in a village, she is one of 8 siblings and the only educated daughter. When she was just 22 she got into an autorickshaw accident, which left her handicapped. She mentioned how in Indian society, to be disabled is very stigmatized. As a young woman she was not marryable, and she alluded to how in her life she had experienced “all sorts of terrible hardship.” Her disability takes effort to notice now: she hardly walks with a limp and has a truly commanding presence wherever she goes.

So much of her life and her story is inspiring, and reminds me that behind each individual we meet is a much more complicated story. Ms. Muktha has so much love for her son, teasing him and bringing him up often. We learned last week that her son was an abandoned baby on her doorstep, and when she found him he was very ill and in bad condition with stomach problems. He is an incredibly vibrant and energetic boy now, no different from any other 10-year old. She believes that he brought all the luck in her life, and that after his arrival everything in her life started to work out.

Once, we asked about why she had selected some of the teachers to be part of our study and not others. In response she made it clear to us that running this school is more to her than simply providing women and others with jobs: it’s about doing something for their lives. One teacher, she has a physical disability and is very shy and “hesitant about everything.” Through getting her involved in our projects Ms. Muktha hopes to build this teacher’s confidence. Another teacher, she is very compassionate for the students and Ms. Muktha wants to keep building her skills in teaching visually impaired students. She mentioned that in all of the teachers she hires, she does not look at their grades (despite India’s obsession with test scores­–the front page of the local paper featured a huge spread of a student obtaining extremely high marks). Instead, she chooses those who care for the students and are committed to their learning.

Maya and I became close to one of the cooks. One night, she began to tell us about her life. She does not have a father, and her only sibling is a blind sister. Knowing the difficulty this society has against the disabled and single women, I can only imagine. Her mother and her sister live quite far away, a 100-rupee bus ride. “Education is most important,” she mentioned several times to us, “but me, no education.” Remarkably, when we first met her she spoke no English at all and had asked me if I knew any Hindi (I was sorry to say no). Yet over the course of a few days she somehow managed to pick up pieces of English, perhaps from other cooks and staff members, and was able to communicate basic sentences and expressions with us. When she mentioned her lack of education again to us, we told her that she was a “fast learner” (students are classified as “fast” or “slow” learners and teachers are frank about this). When she heard this, she put her head down, overcome with emotion. My heart hurt, heavy with empathy. It reminded me how important the role of education is, and how even more crucial are the efforts to make society more accessible and equal.

The Mathru Educational Trust is such an important institution, transforming the lives of women and the disabled in society: two groups that have traditionally been marginalized in India. It is amazing to watch blind teachers and other physically disabled teachers confidently lead classrooms, a blind man single-handedly run the computer lab and teach all of the computer classes, and the school operating with a predominantly female administration. I am grateful for the opportunity and privilege I have of being here and learning from the lives and experiences of everyone around me. Everything I have encountered so far has taught me to keep listening, and to keep being present.

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