- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

GUWAHATI, India Although blind since birth, 11-year-old Deepak Shambhu Chaitya scampers unaided down three flights of winding stairs to pick up a well-worn flute from his room.
Moments later, he appears at the center of a rousing musical performance with his classmates, all of them singing loudly and swaying to the beat of the tabla, a set of drums used especially in Indian music.
Their faces are drawn to the intense morning light pouring in through broken windows.
Deepak and about 30 schoolmates then bound down the stairs, hand in hand, to the schoolyard. Though they are blind, none hesitates.
"They know every nook and corner of this school and don't need to be escorted around," Sister Vandana, a teacher at Jyoti Niketan, said with a laugh.
For Deepak and his mates, there is now hope for what they will accomplish as adults, after spending much of their childhood confined to village homes where parents who work in the fields didn't know what to do with them.
"I want to be a musician," Deepak blurts out when asked what he will be when he grows up.
Anything related to music appears to be the first choice of the students of Jyoti Niketan, a school for blind children up to age 15 on the outskirts of Guwahati, the capital of Assam state in India's remote northeast.
It is run by the Venerini Sisters, a Roman Catholic teaching order begun by a 17th century nun, Rose Venerini.
"All of them belong to very poor families. There are no schools for the blind in villages and their parents can't afford to send them to towns or cities to study," Sister Vandana said.
The Venerini Sisters run several schools for the blind in India, primarily to help poor families who can't afford education. The children study science, math, English, Braille and local languages.
The emphasis, however, is on music and developing the sense of touch to make them more comfortable in a world they can only feel, smell and hear.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed in November 1989, blind and disabled children are entitled to the same education as other children.
Indian lawmakers are debating a bill in Parliament that would make education a fundamental right of every child.
According to the Blind Foundation for India, there are more than 2 million blind children in the country, and only 5 percent of them receive an education.
Small nongovernmental agencies and privately financed schools are doing what they can to help overcome that.
"Our schools are well-known," Sister Vandana said proudly. "Poor parents write to us about their children and we go and pick them up."
Each day, a sister walks to the school down narrow alleys in the company of several blind children.
Rather than have the sister lead the way, however, it is often the excited students who run ahead, urging her to hurry up so they will not be late.

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