Inside Delhi’s schools for the blind

As his board exams neared, Anshu Kumar Shakya, a class 12 student, felt unusually stressed and anxious. Pretty common among students, one would say. But his worries were entirely different. Shakya is bright, but he cannot see and needed a scribe to write his exams. His performance, he knew, depended not just on how hard he studied but also how well his answers were transcribed by his scribe. “It’s not easy to cope with the feeling that someone like me can never actually show what I know in exams,” says Shakya, a student of JPM Senior Secondary School in central Delhi, one of the city’s oldest and biggest schools for the blind.

The government-aided school has over 210 students and about 38 are presently appearing for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) exams. And all, like Shakya, are dependent on scribes (individuals who can transcribe a student’s answers) — which poses a unique challenge to the school too.

So, unlike the heads of other schools, who are focused on ensuring their students are well-prepared, KJ Kuriyan, the principal of JPM, has to worry not just about the exam readiness of his students but also about getting the right scribes to write their exams. CBSE rules allow students to bring their own scribes — students who are a grade below the examinees. But most JPM students leave it to the school to find scribes for them.

In January every year starts the school’s search for scribes. “We want the best for our students, and approach top schools. But the problem now is the school exams for classes 9 and 11 are held simultaneously with the board exams for classes 10 and 12. This makes it difficult for schools to spare students to write exams for others,” says Kuriyan, adding, “ But thankfully, they are considerate and still send their students. Delhi Public School, Modern School, Birla Vidya Niketan and Hillwoods Academy are some of the schools whose students have written exams for JPM students over the years.

In JPM School’s high-ceilinged white and blue corridors, one can see students feeling their way in and out of the classrooms, up the stairs, to the playground. There is signage everywhere, but it seems it is more of use to visitors than students.

Many of them say their exam anxiety does not end with getting a scribe. A lot, they say, depends on their scribes’ writing speed, their handwriting, their ability to communicate and, above all, their command over the Hindi language. “Most of the scribes we get are very talented but since they come from English-medium schools, they sometimes have problems writing our papers fluently in Hindi, which is our medium of instruction,” says Sachin Kumar, 15, who is appearing for the class 10 board exams.

Certain subjects, he says, pose particularly peculiar problems.

“I feel my music paper could have been better. It involved a lot of symbols, which were difficult to dictate. I tried hard to explain, and my scribe tried hard to understand, but both of us were not sure if everything went right eventually,” says Kumar, trying to make light of his situation. In fact, there are times when the students prefer to bring their own scribes, chosen through their own network of family and friends. Sachin Kumar, for example, brought someone he knew from his home town Meerut for his Maths paper. His scribe was from the UP Board; so on certain days during exam time, JPM Senior Secondary School becomes a confluence of students belonging to different boards, all writing exams for CBSE students.

“Ours is a Hindi medium school. A lot of our students are from villages with good knowledge of their subjects, and not all have such a good command over the English language. But they have no reason to complain during their English exam as they believe their scribes will not get it wrong in English,” says Keshav Kumar, 59, vice-principal.

Kumar, who himself is visually impaired, has been with the school for the past 51 years, first as a student, and then as a teacher and vice-principal.

JPM is also the exam centre for its visually impaired students, who generally get to meet their scribes in the hall only a few minutes before the exams begin. The students say their scribes are as worried about their performance in exams as they are. “Though junior to us by a grade, they ask us if we have prepared well. We too want to know which school they are from and what was their percentage in their last exams,” says Abhishek Chaurasia, another class 12 student.

“But some of them are quite reserved, and that at times is a problem during the exams. Generally, we ask the scribes to repeat the question before we start dictating; and request them to read out the answer we have dictated to ensure he or she has got it right,” says Chaurasia. “Sometimes, being from the English medium, they would confuse words such as masle (issues) with masale (spices).”

The students tell you many stories of their scribes’ intelligence, kindness and concern for them. “A girl from a private school wrote one of my exams this year; she was very kind, had a lot of patience and assured me that her handwriting was good. She told me about her hobbies, which included running and painting,” Shakya says.

On a balmy Tuesday afternoon, as the class 12 political science exams ended, one could see both the examinees and their scribes—most of them from a private school—file out of the exam hall, chatting happily, discussing the paper. The scribes seemed pretty impressed with the students they wrote the exams for. “The student I transcribed the answers for was very bright. He knows what he was saying and I am sure he will get good marks,” says Toshak Sharma, a student of Birla Vidya Niketan.

What motivated Pallavi Datta, another scribe from the same school, to write exams for the visually impaired was her desire to understand their challenges, know their dreams and aspirations, and how they plan to fulfil them. “They had prepared well for the exams and wanted to get good grades like any of us. It was a humbling experience,” she said.

The scribes from Birla Vidya Niketan had come to JPM in a bus directly from their school, accompanied by their English teacher. “More children were willing to come than we could accommodate. Their parents were more than willing to let their children be exam scribes for the visually impaired students here,” said Sumana Ganguly, their teacher. As we talk, her students tell her they wish to donate the money — Rs 150 each one of them has got as remuneration for writing the exams — to the JPM School.

One of the scribes asks a group of examinees how would they write exams as they move to university and whether technology can help them. In fact, there are now assistive technologies such as screen reader, a software that allows the visually impaired to read the screen with a text-to-speech output. JPM has also trained its students in these technologies and some of them have tried it in their home exams. But they say they do not want to take the ‘risk’ of using them in the board exams.

Shakya, for example, used the software for his class 11 home exams, but chose a scribe for the boards. “I was worried. What if the software hangs? It takes time before a sound comes after you type in a word. The whole process takes time. Besides, your typing speed too plays a big role,” says Shakya. “Formatting text is also a problem for us,” says Chaurasia.

Back in his office, whose walls are adorned with certificates bagged by his school and students, Kuriyan is happy the performance of his students is getting better over the years. “Ten years ago, the lowest score at our school was 40%, now it is 74. Our highest score is about 88% and 94% for classes 12 and 10, respectively, quite an achievement considering the overwhelming disadvantages our students face,” he says. And Kuriyan is a picture of pride as he tells us: “Many of our students have become professors, bank managers and athletes.”

First Published:
Mar 24, 2019 03:20 IST

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