An Interview with Dr Hemachandran Karah

Dr Hemachandran Karah is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Karah works in the fields of disability studies and medical humanities. Following his doctoral research at Cambridge on the writings of Ved Mehta, Karah has been working on a book manuscript concerning the narratives of blind culture. In the long run, Karah is expecting to contribute towards academic debates in the areas of disability, health, and medicine. Here, in an interview with Manjari Chaturvedi and Chandra Nisha Singh, he shares his thoughts on the idea of disability pedagogy eventually moving towards a brainstorming session on newer horizons in the field.


Manjari Chaturvedi (Manjari): Hema, tell us about your early days as a student. How did you learn English following your school education in Tamil?

Hemachandran Karah (Hema): It was indeed a messy affair to begin with. Telugu and Tamil were my primary languages of thinking, playing, and breathing. While one spoke Telugu at home, the world of learning opened up solely in Tamil. This is not to mention the amount of rote learning in Tamil one has to comply with during the waking hours.

When I joined Loyola College (formerly Madras, and now Chennai), I chose to read English Literature. This was in a sense taking the English language bull by its horn. (We all laughed!) But, actually it was not that difficult; thanks to bazar guidebooks! I used to depend upon them heavily. Interestingly, they all had Tamil and English summaries and cursory reviews of the novels of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and what not.  So, one can get a feel of a novel with a detailed vernacular review. They also offered me a cultural translation of a British world which was so far away by way of language, culture, and time. Moreover, these guidebooks are intelligent templates of our examination-driven academia.  All one has to do is to commit the template contents into memory. The templates host paraphrases, themes based Q and A sections, synonyms and antonyms of a hard-hitting words cluster, and even commentaries on historical context of a literary masterpiece. Probably, one can claim that the bazar guidebooks were an erstwhile Wikipedia portal in themselves. Obviously, many of us helped ourselves with a good many of them to crack a seemingly advanced undergrad course in English. On the spoken English front, my first port of call was always The BBC. Those days, imitating the accent of a BBC reporter was my fond hobby (you should ask my sister about this!). Of course, the BBC stuff did not help me with written English. My teachers, both at tertiary level and thereafter, told me that my writing was sketchy, illogical, and completely unorganized. Then, and now, we haven’t evolved structures beyond a classroom setting that can cater to pupils who are in a similar situation. In inclusive education, the main issue is not about how to make books accessible; say audio and braille formats. The concern is the starting point itself. It is like this: In an unequal marathon setting like ours, students start at various distances. One who has a better cultural capital begins the race already much ahead of others. Some really lag behind so much that their starting point in the marathon is far behind the track area itself. We need to understand this first before talking about disability pedagogy, and the like.

That said, I started much late for a career in writing. Writing is a different game altogether. One can deploy camouflages in the spoken domain, and not so easily in the written medium.


Chandra Nisha Singh (Nisha): Are you saying that accessibility is not such an important issue?

Hema: No, not at all. I just wanted to say that college education should perform with the premise that all is not equal at the cutting edge. Book accessibility for example was a huge problem for me then. When I was at Loyola College, I used to go around in search of my readers. They generously spent a good part of their everyday lives in recording lessons for blind students like me.

Concerning writing, I truly became appreciative of the art of writing during my doctoral programme at Cambridge. My supervisor Mr Tim Cribb spent a good deal of time in explaining the subtle differences between ‘good word’, and the almost ‘good word’. A wrong idiom for example, would trigger a discussion about English language usage across Continents.

Nisha: What about your school days?

Hema: It was good fun there I must say. However, all the blind schools, including mine, perform with the assumption that the sighted world outside is an ideal one. We should all aspire to integrate well in there.

Nisha: Had you been in an inclusive classroom, what difference would have been there in your learning process?

Hema: For language learning three things are important. The first is the development of an appropriate lexicon. When somebody acquires knowledge basically via listening, there is a chance that he or she is forever anxious about spelling, vocabulary, and other nuances of word usage. A classic case is that of Ved Mehta, a celebrated blind autobiographer and an essayist. In All for Love (2001), the protagonist confesses that he is shy to do touch-typing since he feels embarrassed about basic spelling mistakes. In his letter to a girlfriend for example, he spells the word ‘taxi’ with (y) at the end. Like Mehta, I often stumble upon a score of new words which are spelt very differently. My recent catch is ‘Korea’, which I thought is always spelt with a ‘ch’ in the beginning like the word ‘choir’. After all, I have always heard the word Korea via a good many casual readings sessions with my friends. It never occurred to me to crosscheck such an idiosyncratic auditory association. So, what is the lesson? For a language pedagogy of the blind, braille material is a basic prerequisite. If blind children are given vocabulary training in braille, chances are that they will get a comprehensive view concerning lexical idiosyncracies. Other disabilities obviously will require some other sets of solution.

The second component involves communication. Developing communication competency is more than a training in fluency. Our conversations and speech improvisations for example, are accompanied by gestures, facial expressions, and a propensity to establish a contact with an audience. All these communicative nuances do not occur to us automatically. They accrue usually via observation and imitation. Certain higher-level communication rhetoric is acquired only by training. These include a lawyer’s tactic concerning the art of cross-examination, a sales person’s perspicacity, and a doctor’s concerned gaze. People with sensory disabilities miss out on communicative competence. Due to a social exclusion, they rarely get an opportunity to learn by imitation and observation.

And third, the idiom. Proper expressions and a right idiom are a matter of good training in writing. On this count, disabled pupils are not exclusively disadvantaged. Our centers of higher education are increasingly investing on oral performance and not good writing. If I dare say, they teach ideology, and not ways and means to think through a problem.

Concerning disability pedagogy and language learning, one may consider specific contexts of disabled students such as their reliance on Assistive Technologies. To give you an example, I always had a problem with punctuation. My sentences for example, were profuse with commas. An undue proliferation of commas gave the impression that the writer-figure is twisted and shapelessly broken inside. In seeking the truth behind the problem, Tim asked me to read a few paragraphs with the aid of my screen reader. (Screen readers are special audio technologies that read aloud a computer screen). Hurrah! he discovered that my screen reader is set to read sentences with loads of pauses in between. Over a period of time, Tim reasoned, I developed a habit to mime the technology in making my sentences to read with as much pauses. It did not take much time to get out of a comma spree once I came to know about such a basic influence. A million other insights is bound to emerge once we choose to go for a more enabling learning environment.

Nisha:  Do we mean that in an inclusive classroom if a teacher uses traditional methods without taking into account the specific requirements of the disabled students, these gaps would be too pronounced?

Hema: I think one can take assistance from special educators. Besides, we can introduce disability pedagogy as an integral component in ongoing teacher-training programmes.

Manjari: Is there some special training that could be given to teachers or is sensitization enough for the teachers to be able to deal with such class rooms? Are you in favour of mixing students?

Hema: I am in favour of mixing students beyond high school education.

Manjari: So, in that situation, how do you think a teacher should or will be able to address different needs? Are there different needs? I am talking particularly of the Indian situation.

Hema: Sensitization is always helpful; but it can go only so far. There must be special education person in every school who can advise about everyday problems. A deaf student for example, requires sign language support, and also a friendly multilingual atmosphere.

Manjari: Should there be some sort of language labs to address such issues? Do we have any such innovation in place in India or is it something we can create here?

Hema: So far, I reason, disability related training courses such as diploma in teaching the blind, diploma in deaf education, etc target exclusive schools environments. As long as I am aware, they are not integrated well with a mainstream field such as English Language Teaching (ELT). ELT is a specialized discipline. It is very different from a course in literary criticism. All the four modules in ELT such as listening, speaking, reading, and writing will obviously benefit by a reflection concerning disabilities; be it cerebral, emotional, or sensory ones. Disability is not always a problem, it can be a resource too!

Manjari:  ELT yes. How about its engagement with disability?

Hema: It is not conspicuously there yet.

Manjari: Is it something that’s not begun yet?

Hema: yes, not systematically.

Manjari: But what about in the first world, in the western countries?

Hema: Western world too. ELT needs to do a lot of catching up work. However, the Western world can afford expensive technologies. For example, for people with dyslexia there is a software called CURZUEL 3000. It aids people with dyslexia to handle choice of words, synonyms, grammar, and an appropriate sentence structure. Fortunately, Kurzweil 3000, and the like are not beyond the reach of Indian centers of learning. However, East or West, technology is not a substitute for hard thinking about disability. A special focus in ELT concerning disability pedagogy is bound to make language accessibility as a mainstream concern, and not a sideline issue.

Nisha: But don’t you think, Hema, that this is ultimately a very idealistic position: only possible in theory. I can visualize immense problems in its implementation. Do you think we can achieve our goal?

Hema: We need probably a two pronged strategy. On the one hand, we have to be very exclusive to people with different requirements. A resource center for example, can aid Universities to produce reference materials in accessible format. The second method is to introduce disability pedagogy in mainstream disciplines themselves. Fortell is taking a right step in that direction. Our B.Ed. Programmes can have disability pedagogy as a primary component. With no exception, Literary Studies can also include a module on special needs. I don’t think we have a self-reflexive teaching module in literary studies. For example, it is assumed that if you have a PhD degree, you are automatically equipped to handle students who are tuned to different paces of learning. Some professors of literature simply do not know how to mentor students. Literary scholarship requires an ability to peruse reams of secondary materials, close reading tactics, skimming through pages in a book, a way with words, and an acute reflective capacity. All these skills are not innate. They require rigorous, and yet empathetic literary pedagogy. In the absence of such support arrangements, disabled students will end up taking all the abuses.

Manjari: Is disability a state of mind or is it a creation of the society? Is there a real disparity or is it something that one just assumes, both from the point of the disabled and that of the others.

Hema: It is both. Let us take an example. Imagine a blind student in a classroom situation where a teacher offers all the crucial stuff via a black board method. If no one were to translate things for him or her, all that is written out there will make no sense. Now, the blackboard is an essential tool for many. To make the tool relevant for a blind student too, a teacher can offer oral relays of Blackboard notes, which can otherwise be nothing more than a chalk piece screech.

In my11th grade for example, I did accountancy. I remember those days now. My accountancy teacher was clearly aware of my specific requirement. He would vocalize everything that he wrote on the blackboard. He told me that the debit account is always on the left side and the credit scores are always on the right. So whenever he would mention credit, I would automatically pull up in my mind the required mental picture. He was able to pool together certain tricks of the trade in accountancy pedagogy that renders the discipline friendly to all in the classroom. So similarly for every discipline, e.g., literary criticism, such tiny maneuverings can make all the difference.

Now, there is the issue of the burden of disability. Negative symbols and ideas can inculcate the notion that disability is a burdensome affair. Probably, disabled people work through them all their lives. They find it hard to cultivate a positive self-imagery inside. Writers such as Ved Mehta struggle with them all the while. On the education front, it is important to cultivate such a positive imagery. However, we need to confront constrains that come with disability head on! Brilliant solutions may emerge from such a confrontation.

Manjari: Thank you Hema for sharing with us your personal experiences and for the insights into the issues of pedagogy that you have so honestly addressed.


Nisha: Yes. Thank you very much. It has been an extremely thought provoking experience in many ways.

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