The Visually Impaired Need Skills, not Sympathy: How Madhu Singhal’s NGO Is Lighting Up Lives

By Rabia Sooch Khandelwal

Until the age of 13, Madhu Singhal had never felt there was anything different about her. The third child of a businessman in Haryana, she was brought up in a large joint family, and was well loved. A sharp and intelligent child, she began taking singing lessons from the age of six, and a home tutor taught her Braille.

It was only when she started going to regular school in her early teens that her peers made her visual impairment clear to her. This was her first encounter with the social stigma associated with the disabled.

Undeterred, she went on to complete her matriculation, graduation and post-graduation in Hindustani classical music with top ranks.

Madhu SinghalThey say we are only confined by walls we build ourselves. Breaking down these walls of self-imposed limitations is what Madhu, the founder of Mitra Jyothi, has done best, first for herself and then for thousands others in the past 28 years.

“My mother is my hero,” Madhu says. “If the teachers or I pointed to any problem or hurdle in my education, she would find a solution. She made sure I had the opportunity to study as much as I wanted to. And my father was always looking out for what I could do next. He expanded my world. At that time, we would get Braille books only in Dehradun, so every time he went there, he would return with a car boot full of books for me to read.”

Her father’s sudden death took Madhu to Kanpur to live with her brother. In a new and unfamiliar city for the first time, she felt her wings had been clipped. Four years later, she moved to Bengaluru to live with her older sister.

Madhu Singhal receiving doctorate
Madhu Singhal receiving an honorary doctorate from the State Women’s University, Karnataka, in 2015

Encouraged by her brother-in-law, in 1990, she decided to set up an organization to assist the visually impaired and enable them to become independent through education, training, counselling and communication technology.

Everything was uncharted territory for Madhu. She began learning Kannada. She started meeting others with disabilities to understand their needs, their issues and to brainstorm for solutions. She visited other institutions to see how things worked. During this time she met her mentor, NS Hema, the late founder of The Association of People with Disabilities.

“She has been the most important person in my life. I am what I am today because of her,” says Madhu. Seeing Madhu’s potential and drive, NS Hema took her under her wing and taught her everything about running an organization, raising funds and managing people.

MJ training
A class on independent living skills in progress

Mitra Jyothi came into being in 1990. A registered trust in Bengaluru, it started out with Madhu’s mission of helping to integrate the visually impaired into mainstream society and systems,. Today, it works with people with other disabilities as well.

Madhu has had to face various challenges along the way. Apart from raising funds, finding full-time employees proved to the greatest hurdle. She states, “Working in this sector means less pay, barely any growth. You have to be fuelled by your passion to help,” a rare quality indeed.

The next barriers are the people with disabilities themselves and their families. “Often, people accept their disability as a lifelong limitation. They do not even attempt changing their lives. And their parents feel that as long as they are feeding them, what is the need for them to go out of their homes?” she shares.

MJ Dining Hall
At the women’s hostel

These issues are elevated in the case of women. To begin with, their parents don’t allow them to step out of home. If they do go out, they are often easy targets for sexual harassment and other forms of abuse.

Madhu tackled these challenges head on. She counselled families to change their mindsets. She urged them to understand the emotional needs of the disabled, especially women. Besides providing resources for education and skill development, Mitra Jyothi also has a hostel facility for women at very nominal charges.

The organization conducts awareness drives with schools and offices to sensitize society towards the needs and capabilities of the disabled. Many corporates offer jobs to those with special needs through Mitra Jyothi’s placement cell.

Mitra Jyothi beneficiary listening to Audio Books on a DAISY Player. Seen behind her is the Library's Master CD collection
Mitra Jyothi’s Talking Book Library for audio books

Starting out from a garage, today the trust has two buildings of its own which house India’s first Talking Book Library where audio books are available in three languages; the computer training centre; the placement cell; the Braille transcription centre; and the Centre for Empowerment of Women with Disabilities. There are 28 full-time employees with the organization and countless volunteers.

Madhu has won numerous accolades for her service over the years including the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in 2008.

Madhu Singhal with President of India
Madhu (centre) with former President Abdul Kalam

She says, “We complain too much about everything that’s wrong with our lives, our cities, and our country. Have we ever realized our own responsibilities towards them? If we are well settled, why not help others?”

To those whose lives she has changed, she says, “Don’t thank me. Do the same for ten other people and I will feel my mission has succeeded.”

First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine.