“The culture that exists is that because you have a disability, you are supposed to be an object of charity and be dependent, and little is expected of you. But I saw the need for us to live a life that really projects a positive image of disability. Once we are able to do that, members of society will have no choice but to change their outlook of disability.”
By Sharmain Grainger
Envisaging a brilliant idea is one thing, but making it a reality often requires a visionary with the wherewithal to defy any possible odds.
Despite being subjected to an impairment, Ganesh Singh was able to tread on ground that few had dared to trod before him. The astounding outcome was a sustained Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) programme for the blind. Some people may argue that this is no novel feat, and indeed that is true, but the programme introduced by Singh is one that has been yielding especially laudable results.
In fact, many of the beneficiaries have since moved on to higher education, and some have landed careers in education and even the field of journalism.
Reflecting on the genesis of the programme, Singh noted that it all came about because he observed that many young people, some with limited vision and others completely blind, were not able to even achieve a secondary education. This deficiency impacted Singh considerably, because ever since he was 17 years old, he was diagnosed as totally blind.
Back then he was convinced he existed in a society that readily limited persons with disabilities. But Singh was determined to reverse this mindset. “I recognized that that change needed to start with people with disabilities themselves.”
“The culture that exists is that because you have a disability, you are supposed to be an object of charity and be dependent, and little is expected of you. But I saw the need for us to live a life that really projects a positive image of disability. Once we are able to do that, members of society will have no choice but to change their outlook of disability,” Singh theorised.
At the time, the very outgoing Singh was an Executive member of the Guyana Society for the Blind, and since he knew the vision for his CXC programme would remain just that [a vision] without the support and endorsement of the Ministry of Education, he sought just that.
As fate would have it, he was able to secure easy buy-in from the Education Ministry through the support of its Planning Officer, Ms. Evelyn Hamilton.
Singh was already acquainted with Ms. Hamilton, since he was a member of the National Commission on Disability which she chairs. “I told her about the idea and within minutes she said ‘yes, I think the Ministry would be able to give support’,” Singh related.
He recalled that his vision for the CXC programme was crystallised back in 2011 when he was involved in the government’s One Laptop Per Family initiative, which saw persons being able to receive free laptops. The blind community was not sidelined from this venture, since measures were put in place to train those desirous of having laptops to use them.
Singh was part of the contingent tasked with training blind persons to use the computers by way of software named Job Access With Speech [JAWS]. He had years earlier acquired knowledge of the technology and had become quite versed in its use.
But according to Singh, while he was happy to help persons learn to use the computer, it was during this exposure to them that he recognised that many of them hadn’t the fighting chance to become productive citizens.
“When I taught those blind youths to use the computer with JAWS, I saw the potential that they had, and they never had an opportunity to write CXC because of them being blind and the school system not catering to them,” Singh recalled.
Overwhelmed with the desire for the public to view persons with disability as equal human beings, Singh said that he conceptualised how the CXC programme for the blind could become a reality. He remembered how “The idea came to me that I could use the computers to convert the textbooks and notes into electronic formats and transfer it to their systems and they can study from there.”
By January 2013 the programme was well on its way, with the first batch graduating in 2014. The candidates all wrote five subjects and the most outstanding student of that inaugural batch secured five grade ones.
“Seeing the performance of that first batch was my proudest moment… And since then we have entered over 30 candidates to write CXC. To see these people graduate means a lot, because they are people who until this programme didn’t have an opportunity to do this,” said Singh in a sombre tone.
To this day, Singh continues to coordinate the programme on a voluntary basis.
With pride, he shared how 12 of the graduates have moved on to the University of Guyana [UG] and three to the Cyril Potter College of Education [CPCE]. Three who pursued studies in Communication and Social Work have already graduated from UG and one has graduated as a trained teacher from CPCE.
“This programme has truly been my greatest achievement as a blind person…To create a programme and see it impact the lives of so many people,” said Singh, who believes his blindness was in fact a blessing and not a curse.
BECOMING A RECLUSE
Because of his blindness, Singh was able to develop an ardent passion to not only advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities, but to seek out and implement measures to help empower them. “I have experienced a lot, and I know there is hope for persons with disabilities, and I am now in a position where I can influence change… This is my reason for being blind,” said Singh with confidence.
“We all have some impairment, but because of the barriers society erects, they make our impairments disabilities; we are not necessarily disabled. Once people view us as equals, we will have a better society that is more inclusive,” Singh posited.
But he didn’t always embrace this view.
You see, when he developed his blindness, Singh became a recluse.
Prior to that, he was an outgoing personality with the enthusiasm and curiosity about nature, befitting a country boy. He had a knack for making things – the likes of trucks from match boxes and boats from moco moco leaves [a kind of lily]. But his all-time favourite pastime was playing cricket. In fact he couldn’t let go of his passion for the game even when his sight started to deteriorate at the age of seven and he was required to wear glasses.
Singh fondly reflected on his boyhood days, most of which he spent in the Mahaica-Unity District.
Born Ganesh Mithra Singh on March 1, 1984, he was the elder of two children his parents Khamraj and Sandra Singh raised. He attended the Helena Nursery and Primary Schools and also spent some time at the Unity Lancaster School before heading to Saint Stanislaus College in the city.
At the age of 13, Singh recalled that his failing eyesight gained the attention of some visiting overseas doctors who had diagnosed him with glaucoma. A few months later he was heading to the United States to undergo laser surgery. There was hope that his vision would be restored, so it seemed a small price to pay to endure a regimen of eye drops on a daily basis.
However, by the time he turned 15, all hope was lost, when his vision started to rapidly decline. He barely had any vision left when he participated in the 2000 sitting of the CXC examinations. He secured seven subjects, but his performance was not the best, owing to his deteriorating sight. He recalled that he wasn’t even able to secure a passing grade in English.
After completing high school, Singh was diagnosed as totally blind, and this forced him to remain at home for the better part of six years.
Singh was ashamed of his condition, because even then he was very aware that there was a stigma attached to having a disability.
“I was just feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t aware of any services I could have accessed or anything I could have done to change my lifestyle…it was very difficult to not see. I really had no hope.”
His supportive family did not give up on him for a moment. He was shuttled off for weeks at a time to various family members’ home just so he could socialise with persons other than his immediate family.
Overcoming the condition of being blind was not an overnight process.
However, Singh was eventually able to accept his condition and found comfort in his belief in God. He soon developed faith that things could become better in his life. And indeed things started to change in his life.
“Many times, He [God] would just facilitate persons coming into my life or somebody coming up with a bright idea that this can happen or saying ‘we will help you do this’ and I would have something to look forward to…although some things never materialised, at least those things gave me hope,” he recounted.
In 2004, desperate for financial independence, Singh, with a bit of savings he had acquired and the support of family members, was able to purchase a minibus. He was able to employ a driver and was earning an income from this exploit. But this was just the start of his independence.
By 2006, Singh got word about an organisation that was facilitating blind and visually impaired persons playing cricket, and of course, he was immediately enthused. Before long, Singh availed himself for practice sessions.
“Because of my past cricketing experience, I was able to understand the game very quickly. Also, I was exposed to other persons who were blind and visually impaired long before I became blind, and they helped me to understand that you can actually live with blindness,” Singh recalled.
Through the Blind Cricket Association, Singh was also able to attend many workshops and conferences that helped him to become a more assertive and independent individual.
“Blind Cricket is not just an organisation which allows you to be involved in sport, but it helps with the actual empowerment of persons who are blind. They normally network with other organisations, and because I had CXCs, and was supposed to be articulate, and seemed intelligent, I was invited to various fora and persons saw my potential, because I made excellent contributions, so that helped me to become involved in even more activities,” Singh disclosed.
He was not only selected to be a part of the Guyana Blind Cricket team, but he became a member of the West Indies Blind Cricket team too. It was after joining the latter team that Singh recognised that the sky was truly the limit for a blind person.
“I met other blind persons from around the Caribbean during training camps and their attitudes rubbed off on me – their attitude about life; the things that they did was an inspiration to me. They were very positive. They had their degrees, they were employed, they were married. So basically I took all of that into consideration and I knew I had to change my life. I knew that from since 2004, but all of this helped me to understand that I could do a lot with my life,” Singh recounted.
As a result, Singh developed the courage to repeat CXC English and went on to complete a Diploma, and subsequently graduated with a Degree in Social Work from UG. He is currently pursuing his Master’s in the same field, and noted that he certainly would not be opposed to accepting financial assistance to accomplish this especially costly feat.
ADVOCACY FOR THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
But even as he advances himself academically, Singh remains focused on his advocacy for the rights of persons with disabilities. This he is able to do from his vantage point as a member of several organizations including the Guyana Blind Cricket Association, Guyana Society for the Blind, National Commission on Disability, Guyana Council of Organisations for Persons with Disabilities, Disabled Peoples’ International North American and the Caribbean regional youth network and Young Voices Guyana. Singh has also introduced a radio programme which he has been using to advance his advocacy efforts.
But according to Singh, although a Disability Act was introduced in 2010, there is still need for the disability community to raise awareness and the relevant authorities to ensure that its content is implemented on a national scale.
“The Act has helped in some ways, but not in a significant way to remove the barriers that exist,” said Singh, who noted that it is imperative that persons with various forms of disability seek to reach out to the National Commission on Disability, which can help steer them to the services that are available for this faction of the population.
“You can get an opportunity to speak with other persons with disabilities and be able to cope with yours. Having a disability is not the end of the world, yes it can change your life, but that change could be the start of a new and fulfilling life,” said Singh, as he considered his many adventures in the more than 15 countries he has travelled to, some on multiple occasions, since becoming blind.
Singh fully embraces the notion that “You cannot stay at home and become empowered.”
For his extensive advocacy work, Singh has been the recipient of many accolades. He was duly awarded during a Social Work Conference last year, and earlier this year he received a National Youth Award from Caribbean Voices, an advocacy group. These are in addition to many educational and sporting achievement awards he received over the years.
Today, for his untiring efforts, Ganesh Singh is being bestowed this week with the title of our ‘Special Person’.
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