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Tanuvi Joe

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Visually-Impaired Ashwini Shows Us What It’s Like To Have Malala As A Friend

  • IWB Post
  •  March 16, 2018

Visually-impaired Ashwini Angadi had always dreamt of giving back to people like her. She went on to set up Belaku Academy, which provides children with quality education and life skills to survive even in adverse environments.
In 2013, Ashwini received the UN Special Envoy for Global Education’s Youth Courage along with Malala Yousafzai. And then In 2015, she was awarded the Queen’s Young Leader Award and in a recent book launched by the ‘Limca Book of Records,’ she was included in ‘People of the Year’.
In an interview, we went down memory lane as she spoke about the joy of being a mother to so many kids and her hidden love for singing. Excerpts:

Ashwini, you did your schooling in a blind school but then for your higher studies, you chose to go to a regular college. What was that environment like? Did you feel welcomed?

When I went to college, teachers and students around me didn’t know how to deal with someone like me. See I’m that kind of a person who understands everyone but it’s not the same case the other way round. So I made the first move. I offered to coach those who were weak in studies. I took part in all the events possible be it singing or dancing. That’s how I broke the ice and I made some great friends because then they realized that I’m just like any of them.

That’s great. And, what support did you receive from your parents when you told them about where your interest lies?

My parents are not the type to be bothered about society. But yes they were concerned about their child. They wanted me to go to a 9 to 5 job but deep down I really wanted to give back to people. So I opposed them and against their wishes followed my heart by setting up the Academy. But today after seeing my work, they are very proud of me.

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And with Young Voices, you got the opportunity to give back.

You can say so. Joining Young Voices boosted that desire even further. We used to have various projects like going to a particular village, talking to disabled women about the choices they have or talk to the headmistress of a school. Women in villages are not given any choices to do what they want, or they think that they don’t have a choice. Breaking that frame of mind was a challenging yet an impactful task.

Tell me about the time when you were offered to go to Switzerland.

Yes, I met Mahesh Chandrashekhar who was part of Young Voices and seeing my work, he asked me if I was interested to address people in Switzerland about women with disabilities. That was a great opportunity. But unfortunately, I couldn’t go.


Being from a village, I never had a birth certificate. I had to first go to the Panchayat where all the records are kept and then I got my passport. But my visa didn’t come in time. But that’s okay because since then I’ve had the chance to travel all over India and the world.

Fantastic! You might have met so many people around the world. How did the meeting with Malala at the UN youth assembly go?

Malala and I immediately bonded. She is like family now. Her parents have even called me over. Whenever I’m in London, her father makes sure I have food and all the basic amenities. Also when Malala goes anywhere she always shares her experience with me via emails.


And what about your traveling experiences?

I travel alone and manage everything independently. But if someone from abroad comes here, they will have major difficulties adjusting here. The facilities abroad are way way better than here. For example, in India, we are not provided with basic amenities like debit cards. To understand the traffic signals, they should install audio signals. In banks there should be rams and places should be wheelchair-friendly. Metros, trains, and buses should all have audio guides. I hate asking people around if my stop has come 10 times!

My! That can get frustrating. Some Metros in urban cities have started installing audio signals. That’s good news.

Let’s take Bombay, for example. Yes, the metro has audio signals but what about the route as to how to reach there. It’s pretty vast. From the moment I entered the station, there is no one to guide me how to get into a metro. And asking someone for help there is just crazy. It feels like everyone is running a marathon. (laughs) They should make different by-lanes or give us special cards whereby we can access certain routes and board the metro.

That makes sense. For this, the government should come ahead and do something.

Exactly. But I believe that because there is no such facility, I feel even more motivated to do my work. So I actually thank them.

And what do you think about job options available for people with disabilities?

But what kind of jobs?! Firstly, the people at these workplaces pity us and don’t give us any work to do thinking we won’t be able to handle it. Secondly, because we don’t have work, these very people will turn around and say that we got the job because we’re disabled.

In government schools for blind, 8th, 9th and 10th standards don’t have subjects like Maths and Science. But for some reason, the tests for a government job include all mathematical questions which have no relation to the job. Questions regarding computers should be asked to get a better sense of the person’s abilities.

Also, to develop the required skills for a job, a training period of 1-2 months should be set out. That’s when in the true sense, disabled people will feel empowered in their work space.

That’s a very valid point. So does your Academy concentrate on developing skills required for such jobs?

Yes, of course. At Belaku Academy, we also teach them how to survive in difficult conditions, even if you don’t get one meal a day. And no matter what, never give up on your culture and roots. Always stick to your roots, be mentally strong and positive. Students feel low and attempt suicide when they fail in their exams or score less. Things take time. One must persevere and stay optimistic. There is so much more to life.


True. What is the story behind the name Belaku?

Belaku is a Kannada word which means enlightenment. When you light the lamp, it illuminates the entire place. This is the same goal that the Belaku Academy is trying to achieve.

Tell me more about your students.

Oh, they are so talented. When I see my kids, I realize the impact I have on them. Three students came to me two years back not knowing a single alphabet. But after two years of training, they aced their HSC exams with first class.

Another story very close to my heart is of Tanushree, an 8-year-old kid who couldn’t speak, respond or see. Parents brought her here asking for my help. So one day I played some melodious music and I noticed her listening to the tunes keenly. And on another day, I didn’t give her food and she cried out and asked me for food. Her parents were relieved and now she feels better and stays happy.

Our students also compete with schools that opened 20 years ago and win in various dance and singing competitions.


Teacher’s Day celebrations at Belaku Academy

Oh yes, I’ve seen the pictures on Facebook. They looked so pretty. Especially the teacher’s day pictures! And I saw you and the kids went to an old age home on Valentine’s Day.

(laughs) Grandparents want to see their grandchildren growing up. But in an old age home that’s not possible. So for that day, we told them that we’re your grandchildren and we celebrated the day by singing for each other and playing games!

Did you sing too?

Well, I’m not a trained singer but I love singing devotional songs, and I love old Hindi songs. One of my favorites will be Mere Naina Sawan Badhon and Bahut Pyaar Karte Hain. From recent times, I loved the music of Aashiqui 2.


This article was first published in September 2017.

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