Saidal Haq Chunnu is a dedicated and charismatic social activist who became blind at an early age. In 1991, as a recent masters graduate, he established his first initiative in Bangladesh to help the blind learn and refine the skills necessary for either higher education or employment.
The New Idea
Saidul Haq Chunnu says his philosophy for reaching out to the blind of Bangladesh is to emphasize "capability and not mercy." He resists the idea that the blind should be employed on the basis of compassion rather than skill and ability, and he has initiated a program that helps them build self-reliant attitudes, skills and experience for meaningful employment. His program uses on-the-job training as the key stepping stone.Saidul knows that the greatest leverage comes in channeling the blind into formal training and higher education institutions. He has, among other things, established the first "talking library" in Bangladesh to give the blind access to the written materials and resources that will help them get back on the formal education track.
Of the millions of blind people living in Bangladesh, only 200 are literate and only 150 blind people have been able to find reliable, gainful employment. Current public opinion encourages the perception that the blind are a drain on society, rather than an economic resource.Few means exist for the blind to pursue education at any level since gaining access to education is nearly impossible. Government schools are not equipped to handle the special needs of blind students. Few books, newspapers, magazines, or other written materials are published in Braille or made available in a form that would make them accessible to the blind.
Saddul's strategy is twofold. First, he mobilizes educational resources for the blind and other disabled persons to channel them into formal training and education institutions. Second, he works with the formal education sector to enable it to adapt to disabled students. He is in the pilot stages of the first part of this strategy, while the latter part is in the preparatory stage.Saidul began by mobilizing scholarships and job placements for blind students in his home area . His first efforts, he notes, taught him the importance of seeking and maintaining support and assistance from the larger community of people. Thus, pubilc events-such as annual commemorations of "white cane day," which is observed internationally-have become an integral part of his program of action. The events create the opportunity to bring together business leaders and political figures in public fora that review the prospects for the disabled. He founded a nongovernmental organization to be give his strategy an institutional base-Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization (BERDO). As the Organization's Director, Saidul also initiated a community-based employment cell project that, in addition to arranging part-time jobs for blind students, has started income generating activities for self-employment with funding from the Royal Netherlands Embassy at Tongi. To accomplish this, the Organization divided 84 disabled people into eight groups, arranged loans and sent twelve disabled children to different institutions to study. Responding to the need for educational materials for the blind, Chunnu has set up the country's first "talking library." The "recording lab" associated with the library has produced a collection of recorded books chosen with advice from leading educators to prepare blind students for entry into formal educational institutions. There is also a seminar room that contains over 135 "books on tape" and has space for six students to study together. A selection of 227 printed books is also kept there, linked to a volunteer bank of sighted "readers." There is a plan to open a Braille section in the near future. Through this project, Saidul hopes that within approximately three years, he will have provided education and other services to at least 500 blind people, thus greatly increasing the number of educated and, hopefully, self-sufficient blind persons in Bangladesh. But more importantly, he is methodically systematizing the program as a model for subsequent replication throughout Bangladesh and the wider South Asia region.
Chunnu lost his own eyesight at the age of six due to typhoid fever. Nevertheless, he attended school and obtained two degrees (an Honors bachelor degree and a master's in philosophy) from the University of Dhaka. Although relatively young, Chunnu has already gained experience from working with three social organizations. He has served in executive roles in the Association for Blind Students of Dhaka University, and the Rotary Club of Dhaka University.Saidul possesses a quiet self-assurance, but is youthfully energetic. His dynamic personality is one of the key reasons why people respond to him with respect, and to his proposals with confidence.