Selection of Speeches by Bapin
A Transition from a Life of Darkness to Light
By Anindya (Bapin) Bhattacharyya
An Adaptive Technology Instructor at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults
Sands Point, New York, U.S.A.
First Deaf-Blind International Asia Conference Ahmedabad, India
February 11-12, 2000
Did I imagine that there was an unexpected crisis ever to occur in my life? The answer was a big NO. I was born deaf which was as normal for me as if no disability existed in me. However, it never dawned on me that I was so naive about how many crises could occur but this one, a life of darkness. But it did not stay dark, how nice a surprise it was when it became light! I suffered from the loss of the sight in both eyes but it taught me a lesson how to live through a heartbreaking experience which later became so valuable and fulfilling.
You never know when a moment will come which will change you. You won't resist but learn to greatly appreciate it. You start to understand and realize why you've come onto this or that path which is just right for you to advance yourself and which will bring with it a great degree of maturity. One example is that last month I entered a store to ask for a power surge protector to plug in my computer equipment while traveling in India. Communicating by writing back and forth was time consuming so I asked the salesperson to allow me to use a computer and he looked perplexed. I insisted that he guide me to the computer and as soon as I typed my question, he immediately "got it" and typed back his response. My deaf friend who was with me interpreted what the salesman typed. He said that he did not have the product I wanted and that I needed to go to another store. I asked him if he would call the store to see if they had the product. He responded back by typing that he could not because the other store was his competition. I smiled and politely urged him to help me since his store did not have a phone ready with a TTY (a machine which a deaf person uses to type to another person with the same machine) and that I needed to rely on a hearing person to make a call for me. I told him that he could always stay neutral and need not state where he was calling from! You see how I broke two communication barriers.
I am sure that there are times when we all have said to ourselves, "I can't do it" to something we really wanted to do, but were fearful of trying. After trying some things for the first time, we find ourselves wondering why we ever worried about doing it in the first place. I know that many of you may be thinking, "Wow, if I were deaf-blind, how would I live without my hearing and sight?" What does it really mean...the word "handicapped?" You've heard this word and others such as "disabled" or "impaired," but do they really mean the inability to do things? Let's examine this thought!
I remember when I first became blind at age nine it was not easy. I lost a lot of friends because they were fearful about how to communicate with me. I used to go to a club every afternoon to play with boys my age. After I became blind, I went there just for socializing, but after ten minutes they would say, "Are you ready to go home?" At that time I was naive, and didn't have enough wit to come back with a quick answer. After several years, I realized that they had no interest in communicating with me. I sat there in silence. As a result, I stopped going. They never bothered to look for me.
While struggling to acquire a new life without sight, I often had a desire to commit suicide. However, at that time, I was not a believer in God, yet God kept His eyes closely on me. This is when I began to learn one of the greatest virtues...PATIENCE! God was gracious in granting me enough strength to live through these difficult days and patience was a major tool. Again, God greatly blessed me by providing me the finest education in the United States. He showed me that He did not want for me to waste my entire life, no matter if I lost my sight. He has always kept my life fulfilled. He has always found a way to lead me to the right place where He knew I would be happy.
Being from a village south of Calcutta with farmlands and eighty-five percent of the population living in poverty and illiteracy, it is very gratifying to think that I'm here talking to you. Born deaf, I am very grateful to have been born to parents who are prestigiously educated. From my American perspective, most people of Indian culture are embarrassed to show their disabled children in public, but my parents--exceptional folks--could understand that my needs were very special. In contrast to most parents of disabled children receiving help and counsel from agencies for parents newly exposed to disability, my parents, as teachers themselves, knew how to handle my deafness without any assistance from outside specialists.
From the very first years of my childhood, my mother taught me how to speak Bengali. She used many creative ways to describe how to make the sound of a letter by moving her lips and had me feel her throat for vibrations. I could then speak and lipread. People who had heard my voice frequently could understand me.
When I was six years old, I was sent to a school in Calcutta near my mother's family's house. As I was deaf, I had to sit in the front of the class to be able to lipread what the teacher said. Unfortunately, I faced many difficulties at this school, because the pupils took advantage and made a mockery of my deafness. They would guffaw at my misunderstandings while I struggled to lipread and comprehend what the teachers were saying. The teachers also were not aware of the situation and let it continue. At that time I was too innocent to deal with the situation, therefore, I became intolerant and behaved naughtily. The school got disgusted and expelled me after six months. I headed back to my home village.
One day, for some unexplained reason, my mother decided to examine my sight. She placed her hand on my right eye and asked if I could see from my left eye. I replied yes, and she switched to my left eye. I felt terrified to discover that I could not see a single thing from my right eye. I was afraid to tell her the truth and lied, "yes". She was clever enough to hold an object before me and requested me to identify it. I guessed wrong. Although she told me not to worry about being blind in that eye, she felt saddened. I was frozen into deep thought about what had happened. I remembered and told her that I was digging soil one day with one older boy from my neighborhood when he accidentally threw soil into my right eye. I never realized that I was blind in one eye because I still could see my other eye.
My father had me admitted to a hospital where I stayed for three months during which time doctors tried to find the cause of my blindness. All the doctors could say was that the retina had been badly destroyed. I returned home where I was accepted to a nearby elementary school. At first the school would not allow my enrollment because they thought I could not compete with other students. My father persistently persuaded the school's headmaster to let me in. I was then seven and a half years old and in the first grade.
When I was half way through the second grade, I had a fight with a boy who decided to throw ash-like dirt into my eyes. I was hurried to the hospital. The doctor could not restore my vision fully as the retina was already detached. I slowly became totally blind during a three-month period. I became horrified and did not know how to live or move around freely without any sight. I had to quit school. After the incident, my young brother was born, causing chaos for my family. It was a lot to handle at an already difficult time.
I was confined at home for four years. At that time, my blindness frustrated me because I did not understand how to express my problems, and became angry and mischievous. I often would sneak out of the house to make trouble while everyone was having a siesta. I would sometimes throw hay through my neighbors' windows. Other times I would lock their doors from outside by hooking up chains, which meant no one could come out. My father became infuriated and proclaimed that he would kill me by squeezing my neck with a tong. I told him repeatedly that I would not commit the behavior again. I failed to keep my promises due to my being so frustrated.
Although I was troubled as a child, I found a little peace in creative expression. I developed a hobby by using manual skills to make statues of Indian gods and goddesses through woodworking and ceramics. Since my mother was a talented artist, she always offered to paint these statues for me.
Finally, one specific day shook me out of my lonely existence--a dramatic turn from an old being to a new one. During the four-year period my father searched for a school for me to resume my education. Unfortunately, all the schools for the blind in India would not accept me as they had no provisions for working with deaf students. Nonetheless, his unsuccessful endeavor did not last, as not much later, my young aunt met a principal of Behala School for the Blind in Calcutta who had attended Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts as a teacher trainee years ago. She advised her that Perkins was the best possible place for me to obtain my education.
Since the government in India would not aid me either financially or otherwise, the process in making arrangements for me to enter Perkins was complicated. You all know that the salaries of the average people here do not meet the living standards of the United States, buying two round trip air tickets cost one of my parents' one full year's salary. My father wrote to Perkins to inquire about obtaining scholarships. Perkins responded immediately and generously offered me scholarships for the time I was enrolled as a student there. The principal of Behala School had acquaintances with several businessmen who were very willing to help pay for plane tickets.
The enormous step in taking a journey halfway around the globe was an awakening adventure. My life was completely changed--from a life of darkness to light--when I came to Perkins in September of 1983. My father accompanied me as well as to be my translator from English to Bengali. All I knew was the English alphabet and a few words such as "I love you," "I want to go to the bathroom," "I want to eat," and "I want to go to sleep!" Upon arrival at Perkins and entering my dorm, the first question I was asked was whether I wanted to live alone or with my father. I told my father that I wanted to live by myself to force myself to learn English. From the next day on, I rolled up my sleeves to learn English, braille, and American Sign Language at the same time. My father also learned braille and took courses to acquire new skills about how to work with deaf-blind children.
I started to see a different world by meeting other students who also were deaf-blind, which encouraged me to adjust to my deaf-blindness. I never imagined from a village with a large population living in poverty and illiteracy that there could also be people in similar situations as myself who existed on this earth. The only drawback was that I could not communicate easily with these deaf-blind students because of my limited sign language.
Originally it was arranged that my father and I be enrolled at Perkins for one year. Since Perkins saw how much progress I was making, they decided that my returning home would waste all the skills I learned. My father agreed to return to India and leave me under the guardianship of my first English teacher, Mrs. Carol Crook.
Throughout my time at Perkins, I instinctively developed a strong interest in helping others who are in my situation. Therefore, my enthusiasm to achieve higher education continued. However, when the time came close for me to graduate with a high school diploma from Perkins, I fretted a great deal about how I was going to acquire a higher education. Obviously, the availability of services and accommodations at a college to meet my needs was still unknown to me. Yet, Perkins was a preparer for me. They helped me with the "merry-go-round" of life changes, where I need to do everything to secure services, scholarships and assistance for my success throughout my college years. I am proud to stand here holding a bachelors degree in political science from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the hometown of President Bill Clinton! Don't worry, I have not followed his footsteps with all the world-attention-getting scandals!
Again, after graduation from college, a "big bang" life change plagued me. I never imagined moving to New York and securing a job as an adaptive technology instructor at the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC) as my plan was to seek for a job in my field. Following many unsuccessful attempts to find work in my field, I decided to send my resume to many agencies and friends. A good friend of mine from HKNC persuaded that I had excellent computer and adaptive technology-related skills and should consider a job in technology. I was hesitant at first since I had no degree in computer technology. But I then told to myself that one can't decline an opportunity when it comes to light so I stepped forward for HKNC.
I told you earlier that I instinctively developed an interest in helping others in similar situations as myself. Now I am proud to be working at HKNC because I am helping improve the quality of life of other deaf-blind people. Not only am I amazed to see how much progress I have made since my childhood, but how my success through life has significantly impacted others to pursue their dreams for better lives.
If you asked me what day I thought was the most interesting day of my life, it was on Sunday, August 18, 1991, when I first heard a coup had taken place while I was in Russia. I immediately thought how cool it was for someone from a capitalistic world to be trapped in a world of communist activities. I, fearless and prepared, was very curious to see the outcome. My German friend and companion, Gerald, was worried about whether we could leave Russia in two days. For me, it did not bother me at all, I put this concern in God's care. Nobody said life was easy. It was one heck of a challenge but a worthy one that I experienced through the coup and being in the real history. You never should miss a challenge or opportunity whether it is risky or jubilant.
We all have different weaknesses, and we don't need to be afraid to admit them. Some of us may be weak in certain subjects in school, or performing in plays, or sports, and so on. Sometimes we are afraid to admit to weaknesses for fear of rejection, but any weakness can become one's strength if he or she faces it, and allows God to use it in his or her life. We have to remember that there are no easy paths in life. Even people who are hearing and sighted can be disabled, not necessarily physically, but disabled in the way they deal with different situations. One example of this might be in the way hearing and sighted people become uncomfortable around disabled people, and don't even try to relate to them. We miss a lot in life when we fail to see the benefits of trying to recognize disabled people as being humans, too.
How many of you have had an old car which you lovingly kept fixing, maintaining and driving until it finally just quit running? A lot of people tend to look at deaf-blind people and say "just give up, your parts don't work anymore!" Why are cars more important than people? Just because a part of our bodies is functioning improperly does not mean we are dead. We still have our brains to help us find other ways to make adjustments. In being deaf-blind, I have lost two senses, but I still have other senses such as taste, touch, and smell. These senses are probably a bit keener in me because I depend on them more.
Being deaf-blind has both good and bad sides to it; kind of like reading the newspaper. The news always seems bad, but the advertisements are always enticing us to buy new products that claim will make life easier! For example, if I were not deaf-blind, I would probably still be in India with a very narrow mind. Due to my being deaf-blind and by God's grace, I am in the United States, and able to share good news with you of my personal experiences things that may have never happened had I not been deaf-blind. Are you hearing bad news about me because of my deaf-blindness now! All I think is that being deaf-blind does not have to be a disability or handicap. God has given me strength to overcome my disability just as He gives you strength to overcome your weaknesses. Let me remind you of a few things: none of us should give up on anything but rather have strong faith in God and ourselves. I have a favorite philosophy that I would like to share with you: persistence, ambition, and enthusiasm--these are my THREE important principles. If you take these principles, I can more than guarantee you that you will be surprised at how much progress you can make, no matter what your difficulties or weaknesses are!
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