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Home >> NPOs >> HKIDB - Helen Keller Institute for Deaf & Deafblind >> Beroz Vacha

Light, sound, action

She's come into the spotlight with her support to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Black. But, over the years, Beroz Vacha has been playing a far more important role, opening up a whole new world for the deafblind in India, finds Nilanjana Sengupta

In 1977, Beroz Vacha founded the Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Deafblind in Mumbai in honour of the deafblind woman who did pioneering work for the disabled. The institute is in the spotlight today. Vacha's students taught actors Rani Mukherji and Amitabh Bachchan sign language so they could portray a speech-impaired deafblind girl and her teacher in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Black. When asked how she feels about the critical acclaim the film has received, the 76-year-old pauses before saying, "I am happy for Sanjay, I am happy for Black."

For Vacha, her role in opening up a whole new world for the deafblind in India has been much more significant. Often referred to as the 'mother of Indian sign language', she was the first to bring in the concept of total communication that includes touch, in addition to sign language and finger spelling sentences in the palm. When the feisty lady crossed the finish line of the Mumbai Marathon's Harmony-sponsored Silver Run this January, alongside Rajinder Singh Sethi, a visually challenged and hearing-impaired teacher of Braille (see Showing The Way, Harmony, February 2005), not many knew her. Now, more people know her name, after the credits of the film acknowledged her support. Vacha was pleasantly surprised.

"A credit line is too insignificant for someone like her," says Bhansali, who first met Vacha in 1994 before making his debut film Khamoshi on a hearing and speech-impaired couple. "After the three hours I spent with her, I knew I had found my Anne Sullivan [a blind Irish woman who was governess and mentor to Helen Keller]." The filmmaker had no doubt that Vacha would lend her support to Black. "She may not have given birth to them, but she is her students' mother," he says.

Vacha, a Parsi from Mumbai, plays the role perfectly-she is stern, fiercely protective and, at times, downright indulgent. She won't let her students fall, but she won't hold them either, letting them learn their way through life. "Bachchan's character in Black is modelled on Beroz and Sullivan," reveals Bhansali. The similarities are striking, but they end on the screen. Once the tinsel wears off and the veneration dies down, it is to Vacha's school that journalists flock for the real picture.

Done with the interviews-they took up much of her time after Black released- Vacha is back at work. There are people from other deafblind organisations to meet, and letters to send. "I'm just part of a wheel that keeps turning," she says.During her 27-year tenure at the Helen Keller Institute, the wheel has turned many times. The number of students has gone up from three to 150. From a municipal building in Byculla to the more spacious Aditya Birla Centre at Vashi, the infrastructure has also come a long way. The institute at Vashi has a swimming pool for hydrotherapy, occupational therapy facility, an indoor gymnasium, and classrooms. Financial support and donations trickle from individual and group donors-a bulk of it for the Vashi centre came from Rajashree Birla, wife of the late Aditya Birla.

Though paucity of funds is a serious concern, Vacha has not waited for things to happen. Over the years, she has cajoled her way into the coffers of friends, well-wishers and philanthropists. Sense International India, a branch of the UK-based international organisation for the deafblind, sent her on a fund-raising trip across Europe in 1996 for the construction of the Vashi centre. "God gives me the strength," says Vacha whose workstation is surrounded by messages from the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. An adage stuck to her front door says, 'Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide, and being responsible for it.' The last five words are her addition, underlined for effect.

Vacha's sense of responsibility is keen. In 1977, she quit her job as the principal of the Education Audiology and Research Society (also known as E R Centre), a school for the deaf and blind in Mumbai. "These children needed a different approach and I was willing to try," she says. With Rs 150 in her pocket, Vacha set up the Helen Keller Institute in the home of a fellow teacher. "Not many took note of a school that had three teachers and as many deafblind children," says Pervin R Mehta, 55, honorary principal of the E R Centre. "But she never lost sight of her objective."

Earlier, as a 25-year-old, Vacha was a licensed pilot. Her husband, the late Commander N H K Vacha, also a founder trustee of Helen Keller, was posted by the Navy to Patna in the 1960s, where she spent four years learning how to fly. In 1965, a chance meeting with a friend in Kolkata led Vacha to the Aural School for the Deaf in the city. "In due course, I knew that flying was not really my calling, teaching the deafblind was," she says.

She had barely completed a month as trainee when the principal insisted that she teach a girl who was born deaf, and turned blind at 16. The experience strengthened her will and she decided to make her job a lifelong commitment.

"The word 'enough' does not exist in her dictionary," says Suryakant C Dalal, the 80-year-old president of Helen Keller Institute. Five years ago, Vacha introduced computers for the deafblind. "We had only just begun adapting computers for the visually impaired, and she was talking about the deafblind!" recalls Dalal. But within a year, Vacha had deployed the Braille press at Byculla and fitted it with computers. Other highlights included power Braillers (they convert normal text on a computer screen to Braille) and Braille embossers (to print text documents as Braille sheets). Vacha is now raising funds to buy computers for the Vashi branch.

The Braille press prints a bi-annual newsletter, Deafblindness in Asia, distributed in Asia, Europe and the US. The 15 students who work here, all graduates from the Vashi centre, also translate books and maps into Braille. Vacha supervises this work. "She has no hidden agenda," says Mehta, who was a teacher at E R Centre when Vacha was principal. "She just wants to do the best she can."

For Vacha, each day begins with new ideas. She wants to introduce judo at the Vashi school. That done, she plans to follow up on the consolidation and expansion of the institute, check the progress of the five students getting ready for the National Institute of Open Schooling examination and, of course, continue to change perceptions about the deafblind. She is a practitioner of Reiki, an alternative healing therapy. And she breaks into a maxim ever so often. Her latest: "We can't take the future in our hands. We must move along with the tide."

Featured in Harmony Magazine
May 2005