G Vijayaraghavan – The Institution Builder

The Central Government’s decision to elevate Thiruvananthapuram-based National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) as India’s first National University for Disability Studies and Rehabilitation Sciences is a dream come true for one man – G Vijayaraghavan (GVR to many).

Even before the silver jubilee euphoria of Technopark had died down fully, an institution whose founder CEO he was and instrumental in nurturing it to its current position as India’s largest and greenest IT park employing 50,000 people, we met to discuss the journey of NISH, another stellar institution he conceived, now poised for even greater glory.

“It was in 1996. The then Chief Minister E K Nayanar and Industries Minister Suseela Gopalan asked me if I could recommend some project in the software sector, but I told them I had a project in the social welfare sector. They liked what they heard and asked for a one page note which I prepared. In the 1996 budget speech, Finance Minister T Sivadasa Menon announced it and earmarked a token amount. But things did not move forward. Then in 1997, under their insistence, I agreed to spearhead it as honorary director”, GVR reminisced. NISH was set up as a society under the State’s social justice department.

NISH’s 10 acre campus in Aakulam where it now stands was to happen much later. The beginnings were very modest in rented premises across the city offering diagnostic services, technology education with deaf programs and a pre-school. The first batch of teachers was sent to Balavidyalaya in Chennai for training since there was no reputed institution in this field in Kerala. “The single largest funding in those early days came from Kottayam’s Kollemvarieth family – TJS Mathew who got his entire family together to contribute Rs. 26 lakh,” reminds GVR.

NISH is the first institution in the country to propose new degree courses exclusively for students with hearing impairment. It also offers a variety of other programs covering pre-school training, parent guidance, audio-logical intervention, vocational courses and summer workshops. Since inception, NISH has produced about 300 Audiology and Speech Language Pathology (ASLP) professionals and near 100 graduates in disciplines like Computer Science, Fine Arts and Commerce.

As a central university NISH will get into new areas like autism and cerebral palsy. “We want to do extensive research and collaborate with the best universities in the world for special needs children like Gallaudet University, Washington DC to develop our own model for addressing the learning needs of students where cognition is intact, but disability based barriers exist and hence requiring higher education to integrate with mainstream society”, says executive director Samuel N. Mathew.

“Deaf and high functioning autistic children who have advanced cognition and children with multiple disabilities can perform better with Assisted Technologies (AT). AT is basically technologies that will help students in the classroom to overcome the academic barrier” says GVR. Recently Federal Bank committed Rs. 2 crore to set up an AT Center at NISH as part of its CSR program. “We will be doing in-depth research to better understand deaf culture and specific requirements we have, like speech generation technology for Malayalam. TCS is working on a project with us converting sign language in to speech. IIT may pitch in too”, informs Samuel.

For NISH, the current outlay is about Rs. 9 crore contributed by the State. The requisition NISH has put forward to the central government is for Rs. 400 crore and the State has promised to find a land parcel of over 100 acres to house the new central university. However GVR insists NISH is not focussed on scale but quality. Says GVR for whom NISH has been a very personal labor of love, “We want to build a world class special needs friendly educational institution which other universities in India and the region can model, where the learning programs are not limited to special needs people.  Studying alongside children without disabilities, and powered by AT, we can ensure a level playing field which allows faster integration into the mainstream society”.

When I exit NISH I speak to a young mother whose child is at its pre-school about how the journey has been.  The response is heart wrenching. It’s a roller coaster ride for many with the struggle being a combination of economic inadequacy, emotional trauma and social boycott. As her toddler gets ready after pre-school to join mainstream education, she is hopeful the difficult part of the journey is behind them and thanks NISH profusely for breathing life back in to her world. Now that’s a difference Vijayaraghavan and the entire team at NISH can be very proud of.