When he was 13, George Abraham’s mother once told him: ‘One day I want to write your story.’ The high school student simply laughed.
But four decades later, Abraham says he realises what his mother was trying to say. “She wanted me to beat the odds and achieve things that my fellow countrymen would be proud of,” he says, as we discuss his almost fairytale journey so far. Why fairytale?
You see, Abraham was just 10 months old in 1959, when meningitis permanently damaged his vision. His parents, who lived in London at the time, soon moved back to India with their son and decided he would have the same education as everyone else.
Abraham studied at La Marteniere, Lucknow, graduated in Maths from St Stephens in Delhi and went on to do a Masters in Operations Strategy. “My parents read out my textbooks to me. They helped me formulate answers. And then, I learnt to do it on my own too. I was lucky to be born to my parents,” he jokes.
While his academic journey alone would have made him a poster boy for the visually impaired the world over, it wouldn’t qualify as a fairytale. But Abraham was just getting started. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that, in the past 25 years, Abraham has done a fair bit.
He organised the first national cricket competition for the blind in 1990 and then founded and championed the first ever World Cup for visually impaired cricketers in 1998. “Four years later, my wife Rupa and I founded the Score Foundation and then the Eyeway project, which today employs, counsels and helps thousands of visually impaired people, including those who are slowly going blind, not just lead a regular life but also succeed on a professional and social level,” he adds.
The success stories of some of the people his foundation has helped, promise to give goose pimples to even a rhino. Side by side, he has started a weekly radio programme Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karwan, where visually impaired people who have overcome the odds to succeed in life, tell their stories, and the Eyeway Talking Book service.
And now, even as we speak, he tells us about his next project in 2013 -- a television serial to be aired on the national network, which will tell the stories of blind people from across cities and social strata who have battled battles at home, in society and at work to succeed in life.
Fairytale stuff? You bet
But through all this, the affable 55-year-old has remained focused, his feet firmly rooted to the ground. “You know, my first ever interview to a newspaper appeared in MiD DAY in 1989,” he laughs when we start our chat.
But what made him start a foundation for the blind after having worked his way up the ladder of one of India’s top ad firms? “I think I have some of my mother’s crazy optimism and my father’s risk appetite. My mom was an out and out optimist who believed that if need be, the sun could rise in the west. You need to believe that you can do it,” he explains.
Still, Abraham says he was happy with his job till he and his wife Rupa visited a school for the blind in Mumbai. “It was a life-changing experience. I was shocked to see how they coped with life and how their mindset was. It was revealing. I knew then how lucky I was to have such progressive parents. My wife wanted to translate books into Braille to help the kids. But then we decided to do something more holistic,” he recalls.
It was at this time, that the Abrahams lost their just-born child. “We wanted to start a new innings, so to say. I was 30 and she was 29, so we had age on our side,” he says.
So he quit advertising and started freelancing while his landscape-artist wife took up a job. But things moved slowly. Till in 1990, a chance visit to Dehradun, opened his eyes. “I visited Dehradun’s National Institute for the Visually Handicapped and came across blind guys playing cricket in a field. They used balls that rattled and bowled underarm. I was amazed,” he says.
For a self-proclaimed cricket fanatic who grew up dreaming of becoming a fast bowler like Dennis Lillee, this opened a new window. “My dream, which lay shattered when I realised I would never make a cricket team, came back. We soon organised the first national cricket tournament for the blind. I wrote to 200 schools and 20 confirmed their participation. I roped in Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev as patrons and found a sponsor when Tata Steel, then helmed by Rusi Modi, who agreed to shell out Rs 1.5 lakh. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi agreed to give away the prizes. It was just awesome,” he recalls.
It was during the run up to the cup, that Abraham says he discovered that the “real problem was not the blindness but the mindset of the other people and the blind people themselves, to the disability. Everyone, including the blind, believed they just couldn’t lead normal lives. I wanted to change that,” hesays.
So four years after organising the first ever World Cup for the blind in 1998 (it is now a regular in the ICC calendar), the Abrahams set up the Score Foundation and Eyeway. “In 2005 we launched a radio programme called Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karwan. The show spoke to people who had succeeded in life despite blindness. We were flooded with calls,” he says. So in 2006, Score opened a live helpdesk to counsel and help people from across India.
“Our radio programme spoke about or to blind people who were now working in banks, in the IT industry, in travel companies and even as a sarpanch in Anand district. People called, told us their stories and wanted advice. So we gave them ideas,” he trails off. Soon, they also began an advocacy cell, to make blind people aware of their legal rights. “For instance, many do not know of 1995 Persons With Disability Act, where Section 47 states that a public sector worker cannot be dismissed on the basis of any disability,” he explains.
When banks hesitated to open accounts for the blind, Score stepped in. “I lobbied with the government too. Before the last five year plan, I was invited to speak to the commission members. I told them that the government of India looks at working with the blind as a charitable act, which is why it is low priority.
I gave them the examples of Ashish Goel, who holds a senior position in Morgan Stanley in London and Sanjay Dang who runs his hugely profitable travel company Le Travel World. Both are blind but top CEOs. I told them that these are people who contribute to the Indian economy and so, they are not to be treated as a liability but a potential human resource.” Abraham says that is precisely what Eyeway is trying to do: help people make the transition from liability to resource and charity to investment. “If we succeed, we won’t need to have this conversation after 10 years,” he laughs.
But why are we writing about Abraham now? Because he is about to do something else that will blow your mind: a television serial on DD which will tell the stories of real people who have battled blindness and won in life. “We believe the nation needs to be talked to and need a bigger platform, which is why the TV serial. It will go on air soon. It will hopefully make people think about possibilities instead of impossibilities and look for solutions instead of problems. The serial is called Nazar Ya Nazarya,” he reveals.
Also on the anvil is another revolutionary move. “Eyeway feels the need to reach put to people in the language they speak. We get calls in many languages which my staff are unable to comprehend. So we will identify existing organisations across states who subscribe to our way of thinking and use Eyeway as a knowledge network in India which researches and gathers information, disseminates it for people and does advocacy,” he signs off.
Jack and the Beanstalk sounds dull after this.
Motivated to move ahead
S P Singh lives in Varanasi. He was in his early 30s and was a school teacher, when he began losing his vision. He was already married and had two small kids. The cause for vision loss was Retinitis Pigmentoza. He had to quit his job and was quite depressed. A friend told him about the Score Foundation’s radio programme Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karwan. He heard the programme and called up the Score Eyeway helpdesk. He was counselled, motivated and guided about what he should do to get back to work. With mobility training and computer training, he returned to his job and now is aspiring to move ahead in his career.
A few years ago, Abraham received a call from a man who lived in Bhopal. He was in his late 20s and was losing his vision at an alarming speed. He had quit his job and returned to his parents, resigned to a life of darkness. “He had heard our radio show and wanted to know what he could do. We convinced him that he could take on home-based assignments to begin with, so that he felt useful. But after a few months, he called back to say while he was earning money, his social life was in doldrums. While his friends went out and partied, he sat at home. His parents refused to let him out alone, lest a car run him over. We spoke to them but they refused, saying they didn’t want to lose their son to a pothole, a ditch or a rash driver. Luckily a few weeks later, we did a radio show with a blind man who had overcome similar odds and was now working in a senior position in a bank. The young man was excited. He wanted us to talk to his parents again. This time, they agreed to let him venture out close by, with a cane in hand, provided they followed him at a distance. This continued for a while. When both the young man and his parents had gained enough confidence, we convinced him to apply for a job. He landed a really cool job at TCS and first moved to Kolkata and is now based in Bangalore. Recently we spoke again and he said now he hopes to fall in love soon and get married! It is stories like these that I live for,” says Abraham.