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HOW I GOT HERE – Tanya Balsara

1I met Tanya Balsara five years ago, while co-authoring my book, Cuisine for A Cause. If I hadn’t been told that she had a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, I would never have guessed that she was almost completely sightless. Warm, cheerful and living life to the fullest, her work embodies the phrase ‘our eyes are our window to the world’. Through her computer centre she offers the visually-impaired an opportunity to experience a whole new world. It’s both my pleasure and privilege to share her journey with you, in her own words – By Meher Gandevia-Billimoria

I founded Tanya Computer Centre because…having become computer literate myself from the Indian Association for the Visually Handicapped, Churchgate, I realised that computers and the internet can open up a whole new world and I can make chutney of my handicap! A desire grew in me that I should afford this opportunity to others like me and thereby open up a new world for all of them too. I also had time on my hands, so I thought I would do the teaching myself.
When my dad came to know about this desire of mine, he helped me set up Tanya Computer Centre at MNB Home (full form) in Jogeshwari, Mumbai. Subsequently when MNB home stopped functioning, we decided to move the centre to an outhouse in our compound at home, where it functions today. I soon realised that for the visually-challenged, a knowledge of computers is also a boon because it can open up many new job opportunities for them and make people like me economically independent, which is so important in today’s world.

At the end of a typical day at the centre … I feel sometimes tired, but at most times great. It gives me immense satisfaction, especially after a test where students have performed well and great joy to share my knowledge with others.

Challenges I faced along the way were… initially, only the language barrier, as some of them don’t follow spoken English fully. At times, certain concepts are also difficult to visualise. To overcome that hurdle, a tactile book has been prepared. This book consists of tactile images of what is on the screen like the desktop, icons, windows, etc.

Our work has come a long way…thanks to my wonderful family and well-wishers who have helped by motivating me, encouraging me and giving me kudos at each stage for all my little achievements. It is only thanks to my family’s support and encouragement, that I am where I am. When I say support, it’s not just financial, but also emotional. I need a little push to get going with things and my Dad has played a huge role in this. However, we do have a long way to go.

If I had not set up the centre, I would…probably have gone to my Dad’s office everyday and spent some time there. However, I must say I am very happy doing what I do and can’t imagine life without it. The centre has increased my confidence, and it has also provided a platform to interact with all kinds of people.

My motivation comes from… hearing stories of successful people that the world is full of, including many disabled people who have not let their disability come in their way. Just the other day, I heard about a visually-challenged girl becoming an IFS ( Indian Foreign Service) officer. I truly believe that ‘disabilities create barriers but determination breaks them’. I also believe that family support is the most important. The disabled don’t need sympathy, but empathy.

For any organisation, I think being legally compliant is… absolutely important, in today’s world of complex laws. At the centre we use only legal software. I think it is important to be open to change and to keep up with technology in order to progress, but one must also stick to certain core values like honesty, integrity and live in compliance with the laws of the land and ethics of society.

The USP of my centre is…our special bond with our students, whom we try and provide with a mix of work and fun. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! We also try to aim for overall personality development and English literacy, which is as important as computer literacy. The visually impaired may not have sight but don’t lack vision. The differently-abled don’t do different things; they just do things differently.

Awards and rewards…have been given to me a few times in the past, but they are only a milestone, or rather a stepping stone. The journey is far from over. I am fortunate that society has been kind to me and all my friends, family and acquaintances have been very supportive of me and sensitive to my special needs.

My 5-year vision includes…to diversify into areas like English speaking and soft skills development. It is to see the entire visually-impaired community computer literate and for employers to see them no differently than able persons.
If I could change one thing about the social sector…I would urge every individual to be sensitive to the disabled. We don’t need sympathy, but empathy and support. The disabled need to be given the same opportunities as their able counter-parts. You will be surprised at their capability and dedication, if they are given an opportunity, training and some patience.
Leadership in any organisation…I think being a leader is necessary, not being a boss. “Let’s do it”, rather than “Do it!”, should be every boss’ motto. Respect cannot be demanded but has to be earned and that can only be achieved if you give respect to others, regardless of class and stature.

The one person who has inspired me… I am truly inspired by Helen Keller. She once said, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or heard, but felt with the heart”.

In my free time I… I enjoy exercising at the gym, talking on the phone, listening to music and using the internet.

Tanya Computer Centre, located in Jogeshwari, a suburb in western Mumbai, trains visually-challenged students to use the computer and internet, using a screen-reading software called JAWS.

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