Bangalore, India – Madhu Singhal started working with people with disabilities in the slums near her neighbourhood in the early 90s, helping them find education and professional training centres.
With the help of hospitals and other organisations operating in the area, she initially identified 40 disabled people, whom she approached with her offer to help. But, as the days passed, more and more people approached her.
Several visually impaired people came to Madhu and told her that they wanted to go to college, but there weren’t any books in Braille for them to read or audio books. “We didn’t have any infrastructure for Braille,” she recalls.
To address this shortage, she started the Talking Book Library in 1992, with a collection of 50 volunteer-made cassette tapes, which today, has expanded to more than 2,500 audio books.
Madhu has worked relentlessly for 26 years helping to better the lives of disabled people around her, but it was her own journey that prepared her for this inspiring life.
Madhu was born with her disability in the small town of Rohtak in the state of Haryana, in north India. When she was two months old, her mother felt that there was something wrong. “She sensed that I was not reacting to light.”
The doctors confirmed that there was a deformity in her eyes and that she would never be able to see.
But as the years went by, Singhal grew up like any other child, active and talkative along with her three siblings. They lived in a large family home with 50 of their relatives, cousins, aunts and uncles sharing a large, sprawling four-storey house. They lived a comfortable, happy life. Her father ran a large wholesale grocery family business and her mother was a homemaker.
“I was very fond of playing with the other children in my family, and I always participated in everything they did,” Madhu recalls.
When she was five, a doctor recommended that her parents consider options for her education.
“Fifty years ago, no one in the small town of Rohtak knew that a visually impaired girl could study,” Madhu says. But her mother was able to find a blind teacher in the same town who started visiting Madhu at home to teach her Braille.
“I was pursuing my education from home. Every year, we purchased the new Braille books … but there was no formal examination,” Madhu says. Her parents also arranged for music lessons at home to enrich her education.
When Madhu was 12, her blind teacher told her parents that she was ready to attend regular school.
Her parents didn’t think twice about sending her to school, but in the larger social setting, she faced challenges she had not known in the protective environment of her home. Overcoming these obstacles, helped shape her determination and resilient attitude for which she has become known.
“The first three months in the new school were a struggle for me. The other children did not know that the blind could study. They behaved with me as if I had landed from some other planet,” Madhu says.
Slowly and steadily, as Madhu engaged in school work, her classmates realised that Madhu was capable of many tasks despite her disability.
The school officials were supportive and she was even provided with a scribe during examinations, who wrote what Madhu dictated. She completed her matriculation with high marks.
Attending and completing college was the next challenge Madhu set for herself. “On my way to college, I would often hear people commenting about me and my family,” she recalls. People didn’t understand why, even though her family could feed and support her at home, they would send her to college to face daily difficulties.
As there were very few books available in Braille or audio for her courses in the Bachelor or Arts programme, with permission from the school, she recorded her lectures and transcribed them into Braille at home. “My fingers ached from writing 40 or 50 pages daily on thick Braille paper.”
Her efforts paid off, however, and Madhu graduated first in her class.
With the same determination, Madhu completed her master’s degree in Hindustani classical music.
Her father’s death just before her post-graduation examinations left Madhu feeling disoriented. “My father was a huge pillar of strength for me and his sudden death was a huge turmoil.”
When shortly after this, her brother moved his family and business to Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, she was happy for the change of scenery but was left without direction. “I was sitting at home for four years and did not know what to do next. I read a lot of Braille magazines and started making friends with other blind people through the pen-pals column,” Madhu says.
It is through these Braille letters and magazine articles that she first came to know about other visually impaired people who were doing remarkable work. She felt inspired that she too had the capability to do something for society.
From personal experience, Madhu feels that it is very important for those who have disabilities to be able to live and work independently and she became determined to help others accomplish this.
Madhu’s was finally able to put these ideas into action with the help of her brother-in-law, Gyan Prakash Goyal. Her sister’s husband, she says, was “a gentleman who always thought about others”. During his visits to Rohtak, he persuaded Madhu to accompany him and his wife to Bangalore where she remained thereafter.
“My brother-in-law took me to his office to meet with different people.” He was an influential businessman who helped arrange meetings for Madhu with organisations working for the welfare of people with visual impairment, Madhu says.
Through these experiences, Madhu met many people including NS Hema, founder of Association of People with Disability, a nongovernmental organisation based in Bangalore, which helped her get started in her work.
With this inspiration, she established Mitra Jyothi, a charitable trust in 1990. The trust helps visually impaired adults to lead independent and dignified lives through education, training, counselling, communication and technology.
Madhu’s many other accomplishments include the setting up of the Braille transcription centre, which provides Braille copies of required books, tactile diagrams and business cards. More than 55,000 pages have been printed at this facility in languages such as Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati and English.
Most recently, iIn January 2016, Mitra Jyothi started The Centre for Empowerment of Women with Disabilities, a hostel facility that provides cheap accommodation for working women with disabilities.
For her tireless work, Madhu has received numerous awards and honours, including the Shell Helen Keller Award.
“It was my passion to do something for people with disabilities. Every day, there is a new opportunity for me to learn,” Madhu says.
“When I meet different people with disabilities, I understand their problems and my mind starts working on how to solve them.”