Meet the former school principal who made love letters, poetry in Khasi Braille possible

Visually-impaired Khasi children did not have Braille books till Bertha Gyndykes Dkhar devised a Braille alphabet for the Khasi language in 1996.

Bertha Gyndykes Dkhar being awarded the Padma Shri for devising Braille in KhasiBertha Gyndykes Dkhar being awarded the Padma Shri for devising Braille in Khasi

Pritha Roy Choudhury | February 26, 2024 | 10:52 AM IST

NEW DELHI: Visually-impaired Khasi children of Shillong, Meghalaya, did not have access to Braille books till Bertha Gyndykes Dkhar devised a Braille alphabet for the Khasi language in 1996. Since then, such children have been able to study, compose poetry and songs in Khasi. Dkhar had lost her vision to retinitis pigmentosa and was awarded the Padma Shri Award in 2010. She spoke to Careers360 about her journey. Edited excerpts.

Q. You have worked on the Braille for the languages in Meghalaya.

A. I did compose the Khasi Braille — grades one and two — but Garo Braille has been there all along. Garo Braille uses the English alphabet which is the Roman script. Khasi also uses the Roman script but there is a difference, we use only 24 letters and three other letters that are different from the Roman script.

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Q. Which are those three?

A. After the letter ‘I’, there is another “I” with two dots on top. There is a stress on that ‘I’. Another is “EE” and there's another one, “NGA”, the pronunciation of the letters put together. And then there's another with “N” with a tilde [~] on top. We don't use “C”, we don't use “F”, we don't use “X”. In Garo Braille, they don't use “X” and “Z”, but they use “C”.

Q. How was the Khasi Braille developed?

A. I was 30 when I lost my vision completely. Before that, I had to quit my undergraduate programme and had started working in schools in whatever way I could manage. I next tried joining the Khasi, Jaintia Presbyterian Higher Secondary School for Girls in Shillong. My mother was the principal of that school. However, I wasn't allowed to apply for regular posts because of my failing eyesight.

During those days, my eye specialist, Dr. J V Basaiawmoth wanted to start a school for the blind in Shillong. She got to know about Bethany Society, which works with vulnerable people such as persons with disabilities, children, youth and women living in extreme poverty. They were running the Jyoti Sroat Inclusive School in Shillong. Dr Basaiawmoth helped me get recruited as a teacher in the school. But before that, I had to complete a one-year programme at National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities, Dehradun. That was in 1995.

It was at the institute that I was asked to develop Braille codes for the tribal dialects of Meghalaya. I worked on the Khasi Braille code and my classmates, the visually impaired people from the two states of Manipur and Nagaland, developed their own, based on the English Braille code. But since they don’t form part of the modern Indian languages in higher secondary education, it's not promoted. We did the Bhutia language for Sikkim. The script is Tibetan (Sikkimese is written using the Sambhota script and Zhang Yeshe De Script, which is inherited from Classical Tibetan). So, it is very complicated.

Q. Since when are you associated with the Jyoti Sroat School?

A. I had joined in 1997. In 1999, I became the principal. I was the principal of the school for 15 years. I retired in 2013. I moved on to the project programs of Bethany Society and last year in April, I was given the responsibility of executive director of Bethany Society.

I got to learn a lot of things about disability, about the laws and especially, about inclusive education. So, we made the school an inclusive one in 2006. The Bethany Society, with its headquarters in the Garo Hills, Meghalaya, remains a very good resource centre for the visually-impaired in the state and the Northeast.

Q. What was your experience teaching visually-impaired children?

A. We were the first school for the blind in Shillong and so, naturally, there was great enthusiasm among people to send their visually-impaired children to school. We mostly had children from the rural areas because in the urban areas people hide their blind children over the fear of lack of acceptance.

In the school, children learn English Braille first, and then, if there's any other in the local language. Our children became proficient in English Braille. Later when Khasi Braille was introduced, they had no problems because the script was the same and most of the letters remained the same. The government schools were also given Khasi Braille textbooks. Students could attempt the Khasi subject, write songs, poems, and love letters. It was well accepted and they were very happy.

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Q. What barriers do you face?

A. One major problem is around those with low vision. People with low vision don't want to be identified with the blind and don’t use the white cane or Braille. They try to use their remaining eyesight, which often is a drawback for them. This is a universal challenge. Then we have children who do not want to use Braille because they've seen their brothers and sisters using print. Our latest challenge is parents. The more urban the parents, the more difficult it is for them to accept the situation. So acceptance amongst parents is the first barrier that we try to break.

Gradually, we developed this school into an inclusive school. We have children from all types of groups when it comes to disability. We also have children with psychosocial problems, ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The rest of the children have no disabilities.

Q. When did you lose your vision and how did that affect you?

A. I was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition where the cells in the retina die gradually, and eventually stop functioning. Since my left eye had stopped working completely, I was using only my right eye. That too stopped functioning in my early 30s. I was using glasses with very high power, so I could not study mathematics. I had to stop my piano classes halfway too. It started with the piano books. I couldn't read those, so I could not do the theory part. Then, gradually, I had to stop playing the instrument altogether. I could only play till I was 20.

Q. How did you feel when you were awarded the Padma Shri in 2010?

A. I felt I did not deserve that. It is because of the support from other people that I could do whatever I could. I still feel very embarrassed about it because those who actually should be getting the award are the ones who supported us.

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