Prashant and Veena Verma - Part 2
Both Prashant and Veena Verma are role models for everyone regardless of ability or disability. They make use of their experiences and provide guidance and counselling to people who have lost their sight. In Part 2 of their story these two incredible people tell us about their careers and accomplishments, and about their efforts to help others to reach their full potential.
(This is the second part of a two-part story)
Our Lives Come Together
My parents had passed away in 2001 and 2003, and my elder sister and other relatives had confidence in my decision and did not oppose my marriage to Veena. We insisted on a very simple marriage ceremony which lasted for just two hours. You may have read that Indian marriages are grand events and the rituals go on for several days. We were mindful of the wasteful expenditure involved in such a ceremony and therefore married according to authentic ancient norms in a temple. On November 23rd, 2005, our lives came together.
We have lived together (independently) since then in the New Delhi area. Veena is a great homemaker and a very good cook. I never learnt how to cook so I am not of much help to her in that regard. She is able to manage her job and home perfectly.
Veena has gelled very well into my family, and she is now great friends with my brother and sister.
Veena: Work and Play
My goal for many years has been to hold a senior management position in a Human Resources department. My ultimate dream is to make a name for myself as an HR executive in the corporate sector. At the same time the bigger task at hand for me is to help more blind people believe that they can "see" even though the world believes that they can't.
When I used to go for job interviews people would ask me "If there is a fire in the building, what will you do?". I would just laugh and say "I'd run, just like everyone else."
Before Prashant and I were married, I applied for position with a multi-national software firm. The management was surprised by my determination to make what some would call a disability, my strength. At first I joined the company in the help desk, but within a matter of months, I was promoted to a management position in their HR department. As an HR executive I participated in the company's recruitment process by short-listing CVs and conducting telephone interviews looking for the right candidates for the software firm.
After I was hired the company took a huge step forward by employing four young men, all visually challenged. These young men were practically the backbone of the organisation, handling a busy help desk, all by themselves.
I made extensive use of assistive technology (talking computer software, OCR scanning software, talking mobile phone etc.) to keep my performance on a par with other employees in the company where the emphasis is on excellence. My dreams were beginning to become my reality.
In 2006 I took a position with FICCI-SEDF (Socio-Economic Development Foundation) on Project JEEVIKA. This project is a part of the FICCI's initiative for promoting the welfare of persons with disabilities (PWDs). The work, which was challenging, involved creating job openings for PWDs by meeting employers, making presentations and facilitating interactions between employers and PWDs through workshops, seminars etc. I was also involved in capacity development for job seekers who were PWDs by doing skills assessment and referring them to suitable training programmes.
Currently I am working at the level of E2A, Officer HR with NTPC Ltd., India's largest power company. I am in Employee Services, where I am responsible for providing various services required by the employees in their work place. I also prepare and coordinate contract proposals, liaise with vendors, and help in organizing national and local events.
Many people consider me to be adventurous, but to me the things I do for pleasure bring me personal satisfaction. I have participated in mountaineering, paragliding (I have wanted to fly for many years), horseback riding and fashion shows, all of which are considered to be taboo for a woman who is blind. I am fortunate to have excellent mobility skills and am able to travel independently in and outside of the city. In 1997 I participated in a 15 day trekking and rock climbing course organized by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.
However there are also other activities to which I also devote my personal time. I'm closely associated with NAB Centre for Blind Woman in New Delhi and have worked with the staff on the development of women who are blind by providing guidance and counselling. The young girls at NAB look to me as a role model and come to me to seek my advice to help them plan their careers. In the evenings, after work I also provide counselling for children who are blind and who are very much in need of reassurance and emotional support.
In 2006 - 2007 I was elected president of the first ever ROTRACT Club of visually impaired persons under the Rotary South Delhi Metropolitan Club. During my term the club undertook several projects for the welfare of people who are visually impaired and for creating awareness in society.
Prashant: Work and Play
In 2000, after the course at NAB that changed my life, I joined NAB, first as a computer trainer and then an assistant manager, but I have also been involved in many other activities and projects. I want to keep working with people who are differently-abled and that is why I prefer working at a variety of places as a freelance access consultant and ICT trainer for the visually impaired. Technology helped me to find my way, to remake my life, and I want to help other people to use technology to change their lives for the better as well.
While I was at NAB, in 2006, I established the first Assistive Technology (AT) Helpline Service for the blind in India – it was the first of its kind in South Asia. This telephone, email and SMS channel-based service for providing guidance and solutions about assistive technology is open from 9 in the morning until 9 at night. It is manned by computer literate people who are visually impaired – they provide guidance to callers about assistive technology. Between November 2006 and August 2008 I worked as a NAB Project Manager and Head of three departments: Technology Training Centre, Digital Library, and Braille Press.
I have also been a course coordinator and guest faculty at the Equal Opportunity Cell (EOC) in Delhi University, where I helped set up a computer lab for the visually impaired. Classes cover everything from the basics of computers to advanced applications. I was also involved in the establishment and development of the DU-NTPC Foundation ICT Training Centre (part of the EOC) for persons with disabilities as Manager from September 2008 to December 2010. My responsibilities included planning of training programs and services. The centre is now regarded as the best resource centre for the PWDs within a University in India.
Another professional activity that I'm undertaking is work with the Ernet Project as a consultant and Master Trainer with a focus on Web accessibility training. In this role I have provided cornsultancy in the establishment of 100 ICT labs for persons with disabilities all over India. I designed the Syllabus, the assessment and examination mechanism and also prepared training material for the students. I have also been involved in web accessibility testing and training with Centre for Internet and Society.
And Then Came DAISY
I have been working as a DAISY advocate, an International Trainer and as a member of the DAISY technical support team since 2002. My work with the DAISY Consortium has involved establishing accessible digital content production facilities, storage systems and distribution systems in more than a dozen countries. I've been fortunate to have conducted DAISY training in many countries, including South Africa, Portugal, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Japan and India. I've worked with representatives from more than 35 countries, promoting the DAISY "single source master concept" and have trained hundreds of people in the production of DAISY digital content that is accessible to all.
DAISYpedia is an information resource designed to assist in and support the implementation of the DAISY Standards worldwide. It is also an online how-to guide with articles, step-by-step instructions and training materials on creating publications in DAISY format. In my role as a DAISY Consortium consultant I was part of the team that designed this online resource and wrote a number articles and how-to guides about authoring accessible digital content.
My Work in India
I have been involved with DAISY Forum of India since its inception and have assisted in the transition of major libraries for the blind such as NAB Mumbai, NAB India and the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped, Dehradun. All have now given up analog talking book production and adopted DAISY accessible digital content production. In my position as Head, Capacity Building Committee for DAISY Forum of India, I am responsible for conducting training for technicians, playback system training for users, and awareness creation in society by way of seminars and workshops. I've also participated in the development of open source authoring and reading systems.
My country is nowhere in the picture if you talk about creating and using assistive technology. Only a very small percentage of the people in India who are differently-abled are educated and very few of them use assistive technologies. People in the rural areas are still shocked to know that a visually impaired person can read a book using special software. But such software is available only in Hindi and English. What about regional languages? There is still a great deal of work to be done.
When I have time that is not spent on work or relaxing with Veena, I do things such as developing a website to promote accessibility. To do this I created a fully accessible, WCAG compliant website, not just for sharing tools and information on web accessibility but also to provide PWDs with an opportunity to create their own accessible websites, at no cost. I believe that people with a disability should use the Internet because it is the single most powerful source of information that exists today.
Another one of my 'fun' projects was to develop a software solution that makes it possible for people with a visual disability to write their own cheques. It allows them to enter the required information on a computer and then print it on a blank bank cheque using a standard printer. It has voice output to guide the user through the process. This Cheque Printing Template is available as a free download from the NAB website and has been customized for more than 14 public and private banks in India. Information is also available on my MyEhome website. A different but similar project that I took up was to create an accessible railway reservation form – it is also available on my website and is free.
During 2010 and 2011 I conducted "Reading without Seeing" seminars to create awareness about accessibility issues for people with a print disability and to demonstrate the available solutions. The seminars were conducted for groups of visually impaired students, teachers, special educators and Government representatives
When we are out together we almost always hold hands – this is not because either one of us needs any sort of help getting around. Holding hands is our way of feeling together. We have many things in common, but the one thing that has brought us very close is the fact that neither one of us is ready to quit or give up, regardless of how challenging life is sometimes.
We like watching Hindi movies, enjoy food, and often go out for movies and to try new foods from different regions. Several times a year we take holidays and visit hill stations and beaches all over the country. We like exploring local culture and food and trying out activities like boating and parasailing.
At home we spend time together watching our favourite programs on television every day. Veena is very fond of music and enjoys watching singing competitions. We are both very busy with our careers, but always try to make time to be together each day.
Both Prashant and Veena are role models for everyone regardless of ability or disability. They make use of their experiences and provide guidance and counselling to people who have lost their sight, helping to give them the confidence they need to lead happy and successful lives. Information is shared with other visually impaired couples in workshops, through email lists, blogs and face-to-face gatherings.
Individually Prashant and Veena cause people to question the myths about blindness and disability; together they shatter those myths.
One of the things they were not comfortable writing about is the awards they have won. However, in light of their many achievements, I would like to name just a couple of the awards presented to them:
• National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, 2007 – This award was given in public recognition of Veena's outstanding performance as a role model among persons with disabilities. In the citation it states "She is the first blind woman to have been offered direct appointment to the E2 level as Senior Assistant Officer, Human Resources in the National Thermal Power Corporation." The award was presented by President Pratibha Patil.
• 2008 CavinKare Ability Awards – These national awards recognize exemplary services as well as the accomplishments of the award recipients. CavinKare Ability Award for Mastery is given annually to three people with a disability who have not allowed their disability to come in the way of attaining excellence in their chosen field. The awards recognise mastery in any area of one's choice and are given to those who have set high standards for themselves and achieved their ambitions.
• National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, 2007 – This award was given in public recognition of Prashant's ongoing and persistent efforts in the area of assistive technology. In the citation it states "He is skilled in Project Management, application of assistive technology and computer applications...His employers rate him as outstanding." The award was presented by President Pratibha Patil.
• The 2011 NCPEDP MphasiS Universal Design Award – One of the purposes of this award is to bring Universal Design to the forefront in India. (Prashant explains that he was presented with largely due to his association with DAISY).
Both Prashant and Veena were congratulated at Retina India's InSight 2010 event where visually challenged role models who have succeeded in the pursuit of their goals and ambitions were acknowledged.
In "The Hindu" December 5, 2007 newspaper article about the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, President Patil is quoted as saying: "Today we are honouring those who have made outstanding contributions for the welfare and rehabilitation of person with disabilities. Their work is noble as it is motivated by the sensitivity of one human being towards another and at the same time it seeks the inclusion of differently-abled persons in the mainstream society." Even as Prashant and Veena have worked toward their career aspirations, they have dedicated themselves to helping others.