Fellow Since 2001
This profile was prepared when George Abraham was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
George Abraham is helping the visually impaired reach their full potentials. His Vision Enhancement Center provides blind and seeing impaired patients with the counseling, support, and training they need to function as independently as possible.
The New Idea
Based on his own experiences and those of hundreds of visually impaired people, George has developed a program whose combination of clinical and non-clinical components will help the seeing impaired stand on their own feet and realize their full potentials. George has designed the Vision Enhancement Center (VEC) to institutionalize comprehensive, non-medical eye care services. The VEC provides counseling, equipment, training, medical referrals, information, and rehabilitation services. The Center's holistic support structure first encourages the visually impaired to explore, reflect upon, and define their own potential, and then helps them to realize it. George's goal is to build the first world-class institution for the visually impaired in the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) region. He wants the Center to be an example that will inspire widespread reform in the way the blind and other people with disabilities are treated, cared for, educated, and employed. One of George's key innovations is his decision to locate the Center in an existing eye hospital, a sympathetic environment that gives the VEC access to the hospital's advanced medical equipment and medical expertise. To avoid duplicating existing services and to garner support for his work, George is partnering with civil society organizations, medical professionals, the government, and corporations.
In India, where between 13 and 20 million people are blind and another 30 million suffer from low vision, impaired vision is considered a severe and limiting disability. Only twenty-five thousand visually impaired Indians are in the workforce and of those workers, only fifteen hundred to two thousand are employed in non-manual labor. The vast majority endure isolation and severe social and economic hardship in a system that sees them as unable to fully participate in mainstream society and, as a result, forces them into a pattern of dependence on others. Those addressing disability issues work under the premise that the individual is limited by a physical disability. This approach overlooks the person's full human potential, which can be realized through a broad range of services and a shift in attitude. Since the passage of The Disability Act of 1998, organizations working with the disabled have begun to rethink their narrow approaches. As a result, there is greater awareness about recognizing the rights, responsibilities, and capabilities of disabled people. To move from rhetoric to reality, however, steps must be taken to incorporate this broader view into existing and future programs so that the disabled can be part of mainstream society and are recognized as valuable members of their communities.
Prior to launching the VEC, George conducted workshops throughout India to explore and analyze the problems visually impaired people face. These workshops were designed to encourage participants to share their experiences, beliefs, and expectations. George realized that, in general, the blind lead very protected lives and are conditioned to believe they require help to get along. Far from enjoying this dependence, participants felt they hadn't been empowered to live independently. George's next step was to gain the support of Shroff Eye Hospital to run the VEC on its premises. While benefiting from the hospital's steady client base, high-quality medical expertise, and equipment, George believes the VEC will help Shroff Eye Hospital establish itself as a center of excellence in eye care. During the start-up phase, George invested a significant amount of time in developing a structure that would enable the VEC to function as an integral unit of the hospital. He also created several tools and systems that would ensure efficiency. For example, George created a reporting system to keep the hospital's doctors abreast with their patient's progress at the Center. Another of George's innovations is a multi-tiered pricing structure through which revenues from more affluent patients are used to subsidize poorer patients. The VEC offers a wide variety of services, such as counseling designed to help the VEC workers understand patients' individual situations and create special programs to meet their needs and requirements. The Center provides equipment to help the blind function in mainstream seeing society and vocational training based on an initial assessment of the capabilities and wishes of the patient. In some cases, the staff refers patients to other organizations that can better meet their needs, as the VEC does not devote resources to offering similar alternatives to services that already exist. In addition to these inpatient services, George has also created community outreach programs to provide comprehensive eye care to the mainstream community. His school screenings identify children's vision impairments during their early stages and make schools more accepting so that they will support the mainstreaming of visually impaired students. George is also piloting a Community Based Rehabilitation program that will offer similar services on a larger community level. In the next five years, George expects the Center to provide a residential course on comprehensive eye care and vision management. He also plans to lobby for inclusive education for visually impaired children. His work has attracted considerable attention from the media, and the American Association of Opthalmology has expressed interest in applying his model to its work. He plans to share his experiences through conferences and by publishing research papers in leading national and international publications. While offering high-quality services directly, the VEC will work with other centers to make similar care available for all visually impaired people in India. Its first targets for expansion are Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, and Calcutta.
George's eye problems began with a serious illness at the tender age of nine months. It wasn't until school, however, that his condition turned critical. Rather than send him to a special school to learn Braille, George's mother opted to let her son attend a regular school.This was the turning point in George's life. Although legally blind, George learned to live like a person with good vision and was given all the opportunities and support he required to make full use of his residual vision. After graduating with a degree in Mathematics from the renowned St. Stephen's College in Delhi, George decided to pursue a career in communications and advertising. George wanted more than a successful career in advertising, however. When it became apparent how narrowly he had escaped a life of dependence on others, George vowed to change the odds for others like himself. He understood that his calling lay in using his talent and experience to work with visually impaired people and others with disabilities to help them realize their full potential.In 1990, he launched SCORE to organize the annual national cricket tournament for the blind. Seven years later, SCORE started recognizing the achievements of sportsmen with disabilities through annual awards. George's desire to market ability rather than disability led him to establish the World Blind Cricket Council and organize the first-ever World Cup Cricket for the Blind in 1998. He also created the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India. The winner of several prestigious awards including the Sanskriti Award for Social Achievement and the Rotary Vocational Service Award, George has based his work on his own experiences and the experiences of hundreds of visually impaired he has known during his life.