Muskan, Itika and Pratibha are all PhD scholars at Himachal Pradesh University. But, that is not what makes three girls from remote and isolated mountain villages in the districts of Shimla and Mandi special.
All three scholars are visually impaired and yet, their disability has not stopped them from chasing their dreams. Today, apart from working for their futures, the girls have embarked upon a mission to fight ableism.
"I don’t think anything is impossible for visually impaired persons like me. We are not weak or helpless souls born without our own destinies. There will be multiple challenges but there is always a support system around, in the family and also outside," Pratibha Thakur asserts.
A resident of Kotli village in Mandi, Pratibha is currently pursuing her PhD degree and aims to join become a teacher. She has already completed her MA and B.Ed degrees. Along with that, she is also pursuing a double MA distance course in political science from IGNOU in New Delhi.
The daughter of a journalist, Pratibha started her initial studies at home. In middle school, however, she stepped out of her house and started going to regular school. Pratibha has never looked back since,
"I started performing on stage when I was in 6th standard and won prizes in debates, declamation and poetry recitation competitions. I still write poetry and try my hand at writing on social issues," she says.
Much like Pratibha, the heartwarming story of Muskan, another visually impaired PhD scholar at Himachal Pradesh University, has become a great inspiration for many.
"I was born blind. I thought everyone must be like me. As I grew up, the reality unfolded before my eyes - I am different, differently-abled. I am 25-year-old now and pursuing a PhD degree in music. I can feel a different kind of enlightenment - an accomplishment of a dream that I cherish perhaps more than persons with vision".
Muskan has been named a local ‘Youth Icon’ by the Election Commission (EC) for enhancing electoral participation in the next year’s assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh, slated for the end of 2022.
“Today I am a post-graduate, UGC NET qualified, not once but twice. I have also cleared the State Level Eligibility Test for Assistant Professorship. Now pursuing PhD to fulfil my dream and become a professor of Music. The computer and other new age tools for visually impaired students are a big support".
Itika, from Kotkhai, was not born blind but when she turned nine, she suddenly developed some complications and lost 75 per cent of eyesight. But Itika was not one to give up on her dreams.
"My parents gave me the courage to explore my own world of dreams as visually impaired persons are nowhere lesser equipped. I did my schooling, first at Jubbal and then Shimla and finally went to Rajkiya Kanya Mahavidyalaya (RKMV)—an all-women's college” she recalls.
Initially, Itika used to depend on magnifying glass for her studies but now while doing her PhD, she is fully equipped to use talking devices including computers and laptops.
“My journey from the apple growing village in Kiari (Kotkhai) to Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla was highly challenging. But now I feel had I not taken a decision to continue higher studies, I would not have realised how beautiful this world that God created for people really is.”
Today, many girls like Anjana Kumari, Chandermani, Shalini, Kaushalya, Kiran, Priya, Anjali and Monika from remote Himachal villages are able to achieve their dreams, all thanks to Umang Foundation. The organisation also deserves credit for motivating and helping visually impaired girls to get merit-based scholarships, free laptops and other gadgets to pursue higher studies.
“We have just tried to fill some colours in the dreams of these girls. Their battle against darkness in their lives have been made easy by education and awareness. They are smart, brilliant and know how to turn the tables of their destiny," says Ajai Srivastava, Chairman of the Foundation and a professor at Himachal Pradesh University.