Spirit surmounts physical limitations

K Radhabai has never let visual impairment affect her progress in life

In most of her speeches, K Radhabai, distinguished for becoming South India’s first visually impaired PhD scholar in 1991, makes sure to mention that she is from Usilampatti in Madurai district, a place infamous for its high rate of female infanticide.

“I remember my mother getting shocked to hear that the milkman and his wife had killed their newborn baby with kallipaal [the poisonous sap of cleistanthus collinus] because they didn’t want a daughter. In contrast, my parents never took my gender or my visual impairment due to retinitis pigmentosa as a challenge, and supported me right from the beginning,” the retired academic tells MetroPlus while on a recent visit to Tiruchi.

Dressed in a crisp mauve and pink cotton sari, Radhabai smiles often, bringing a refreshing tone to the conversation.

Educational journey

Radhabai credits her father V Krishnamoorthy, a Tamil teacher, for encouraging her to deal with her visual impairment in a positive way. “I attended a mainstream school in Usilampatti until Class 3. But I was aware of my sight slowly diminishing, as I could see the board, but not read what was written on it. My father first learned Braille, and then taught me how to use it,” she says.

In 1969, he sent her to Chennai to study at the Government School for the Blind in Poonamallee, from Class 4 onwards. Radhabai stood first in her Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) exams, in 1977, at the age of 17.

As she was considered underage for the teacher’s training institute, her tutor, Solaimuthu, suggested that Radhabai should spend the interim year learning vocational skills at the Rehabilitation Centre for Blind Women (RCBW), founded in 1975 by noted ophthalmologist and philanthropist Dr Joseph Gnanadhickam in Tiruchi.

Scholastic aptitude

“I took up courses taught at the RCBW home, and then in 1978, the director Priya Theodore approached Seethalakshmi Ramasamy College of Arts on behalf of me and Chandra, another visually impaired student, for admission into the PUC. It was a turning point in my life, because I was to study on a par with sighted students,” recalls Radhabai.

Radhabai aced her exams again, coming first in a class of 104 students. “The principal, who had been initially reluctant to admit me, was delighted with my performance and helped me apply for my BA degree in History. She later also aided me in paying the fees, through fundraising efforts,” she recalls.

Her stellar academic performance later made her eligible for scholarships that helped her to pursue higher education in earnest.

After securing the second rank in MA History, Radhabai did her doctoral studies with special permission from Bharathidasan University Vice-Chancellor PS Manisundaram. She submitted her thesis in 1989 and was awarded the PhD in 1991.

Radhabai’s thesis charted the history of rehabilitation services to the blind in India, with special reference to Tamil Nadu. “It took me five years to write, because I travelled across the country and within our State, visiting all the major institutions dealing with welfare programmes, such as the Louis Braille Memorial Research Centre library attached to the National Association for the Blind (NAB) in Mumbai, and the National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities in Dehradun,” she says.

Tech-savvy educator

An early proponent of computer education for the visually impaired, tech-savvy Radhabai operates electronic devices enabled with specially adapted software.

Being confident with computers had also helped her to hold her own in a class full of sighted students, says Radhabai, especially when she served as assistant lecturer (and later Head of Department) in History in Pudukottai’s Government Arts College for Women, from 1994 to 2018.

“I would make sure to plan well ahead of class and would make my lectures as interesting as possible, so my students were quite well-behaved on the whole. Of course, there would be a few naughty ones in class, but these children would have made mischief even if the lecturer could see them!” she laughs.

Radhabai has won several awards such as the Best Employee, Government of Tamil Nadu in 2009, and ‘Outstanding Visually Handicapped Woman’ given by the National Association of the Blind, Mumbai in 1988. Her biography is being written by A Savarimuthu, chairman of Mother Teresa Foundation.

A new chapter

At the age of 61, Radhabai is enjoying her retirement with a role reversal of sorts, as she supports her daughter Prabhavarshini, who is pursuing a Bachelors degree in Physical Education at a university in Coimbatore.

The visually impaired single parent shares a deep bond with her daughter. “I have often regretted not being able to see Prabhavarshini’s progress in school, but she has always been very conscious to include me in every part of her life. From a very early age, she has escorted me to all my public engagements. I take an attender along when we go for her sports events. When she is getting ready for a race, she will signal to my helper to let me know that her event has started. Even in that intense moment, my daughter is thinking of me first,” she says with a proud smile.

After serving in Bon Secours College and being associated with the charity organisation Mother Teresa Foundation, both in Thanjavur, in her post-retirement years, Radhabai has been trying to cope with the lockdown as best as she can, by reading books and delivering motivational lectures online.

“Historically speaking, the world has faced pandemic-like situations many times. While it is still difficult to hear of so many children being orphaned due to COVID-19, we also have many people volunteering to help those in need. We have to face the situation with determination and perseverance in order to see the positive side of life,” she said.

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