Looking past visual disabilities
Monisha Dilip has a passion for helping people with disabilities. Even though she lives in the United States, she opened a computer center in India so that disabled people would have a place to learn. Read about how she turned her passion into action and is helping others around the world!
How old are you and where are you from?
I’m 19 years old and I live in California.
How did you become interested in working with people with visual impairments?
My mother developed a tumor in 2003. The tumor was in her brain very close to her optic nerve. She was able to have it operated on right away. Had it grown any larger, she might have lost her vision completely. It scared all of us in the family and turned us more to spirituality. The doctors were able to get the tumor just in time, so she didn’t lose her vision. But that is what got me interested in working with the visually impaired. I have been working with a nonprofit called Vidya Varikshah. It is an organization that helps the visually disabled in India. I decided to open up a chapter in San Jose, CA. My mother was the most crucial person in helping me launch the chapter, but the rest of my family also helped a lot.
How did you come up with the idea to build a disability center in Chennai, India?
My family is from India, so I’m familiar with how people live over there. My work with Vidya Varikshah showed me that some visually impaired people in India did not have a lot of books and things they could learn from. So I wanted to help them. A computer center would provide the kinds of tools they needed to help read. The best part is it only took three months to build! In addition to Vidya Varikshah in India, people from WORTH Trust, an organization that helps people with disabilities, also played a huge role in the creation of the center.
Why did you choose Chennai, India, to establish the center?
All of my extended family is from Chennai and I visit the city every year, so I decided to start there.
How were you able to raise money to build the disability center?
With the help of my dance teacher, we put on an Indian dance show here in the U.S. with both classical and folk dances. During intermission, I asked the audience to donate to the cause. We raised upwards of $4000 for the computer center. Several hundred people attended the performance and almost 100 dancers performed.
Tell us more about the center. What is it like?
The center itself is housed in one of the formerly empty rooms at WORTH Trust. It's not that huge, but it has four computers that we installed. They have since added more, but not with our financial assistance. The center has a lot of tools that help people with disabilities, such as software that speaks. There are also large type keyboards and magnifiers that make words easier to see, among other things.The most important, however, is the access to the Bookshare software. Bookshare makes books available to people who cannot see or who have other disabilities. It offers more than 90,000 different kinds of books, from textbooks to fiction and everything in between.
How many people have been helped by the disability center?
We have helped more than 150 people so far! It makes me feel really good to think about that.
Do you think having a vision impairment is different in India than in the United States?
Being a visually impaired person in India, or in any developing country, can be very different compared to the U.S. First of all, people with a visual impairment in India rarely go beyond elementary school. This is mainly because very few books at their schools are available in readable formats, such as Braille, that they can read. Also, they don’t have resources like audio books. Braille and audio books are very expensive, so there are not many copies to go around. Because there are so many visually impaired students, the government can’t provide funding for everyone. Plus, there are many issues that they have to face on a daily basis. For example, crossing the road in heavy traffic with no speaking pedestrian walkways telling when it is safe to cross, riding in elevators with no Braille markings, and cooking with gas stoves as opposed to an expensive microwave are some of the many issues those with a visual impairment face.
How has the Girl Scouts of America recognized you for your efforts?
Girl Scouts of American helped inspire me to do the disability center through its Gold Award program. I received the Gold Award and was recognized as one of their 10 Young Women of Distinction in 2009.
On a different note, you’re in college now. Tell us what do you do to stay healthy in college?
In college, I swim and play water polo. I am currently on the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) water polo team.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology. After that, I would like to become a surgeon, maybe focusing on neurology. I would also like to spend some of my time researching neurological disorders and diseases. So, I will need to go to medical school after finishing my undergraduate degree at Caltech.
Content last updated June 01, 2011