For fifteen-year-old Jignesh from Ahmedabad, it was an experience of a lifetime. Visually-impaired since birth, he and his friends from the Blind People's Association (BPA) were at the screening of the Bollywood movie Taare Zameen Par in Ahmedabad. Organized by Essar Foundation to mark World Sight Day, this screening was the first of its kind for many reasons. Specially customized for the visually-impaired using the technology of audio description, the screening saw the launch of Essar Foundation's Unmukt, a national program for outreach and strategic inclusion of the differently abled. Jignesh says with a big smile, "It's a wonderful film. And, I didn't have to bother my mother to tell me what's going on in the movie."
In a move to create an inclusive society with a more disabled-friendly ecosystem, Essar Foundation has conceived Unmukt, a unique initiative towards empowering the disabled with improved access. Unmukt, meaning freedom, broadly translates to independence in the context of human life. Unmukt has been initiated by the Essar Foundation with a vision of strengthening disabled-friendly ecosystem for organic inclusion in the society. Essar Foundation, under its health initiatives, aims to sensitize the society towards the needs and rights of the physically challenged. Essar Foundation – through Unmukt – has, as a first step, embarked upon the customization of meaningful and popular cinema for the visually-impaired.
On the occasion of World Sight Day, observed on the second Thursday of October every year, Essar Foundation formally launched the Unmukt program in Ahmedabad. Launched by the chief guest Mr Sanjay Prasad, Principal Secretary, Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of Gujarat, Unmukt aims to make popular cinema more accessible and inclusive. Persons of repute, leading professionals of the city, enthusiastic Amdavadis from various walks of life, as well as officials of Essar Foundation, Blind People's Association and Saksham took part in the event.
Unmukt is the first-ever effort in the country to screen audio-described mainstream cinema to an audience of visually impaired people on a large scale. It is also the first attempt in bringing people with visual impairment and those with sight to experience a film together. Audio described films include a voice-over that describes the portions that have silent action and visuals, and fills the gaps where the visually-impaired might have difficulty relating to the story. This allows a visually-impaired person, whether partially or completely blind, to enjoy a film without being dependent on a sighted person. Saksham, an organisation working in the disability sector is a pioneer in using this technology to make films audio descriptive. Essar Foundation has initiated the task of creating a significant repository of audio described versions of meaningful cinema, under which another popular film, '3 Idiots' has been readied through Saksham. This version of the film was unveiled during the inaugural event and Essar Foundation plans to screen it across the country as well.
Mr Deepak Arora, CEO, Essar Foundation says, "This is a wonderful opportunity for us to provide access to mainstream meaningful cinema for the visually-impaired. The Unmukt program, with its audio described films, provides the independence for a visually-impaired person to enjoy a film in totality." Dr Bhushan Punani, Executive Director of Blind People's Association that has collaborated with Essar Foundation in this unique initiative, says that it is a matter of pride to be associated with Essar Foundation on such an important mission. "Entertainment is an important aspect of life and a blind person should not be deprived of the same joys or be dependent on another for it," says Dr Punani.
The event saw the participation of several dignitaries like Mr Dilip Parikh, former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Ms Deepika Sood, Board Member, Saksham, Mr Jehangir R J Cama, President, BPA, Dr PN Nagpal, President, Vision 2020, Gujarat, Ms Nandini Rawal, Project Director, BPA and Mr Bhasker Mehta, Secretary, NAB Idar and Former Disability Commissioner, Gujarat, to name a few. During the screening of the movie, people with sight received blindfolds so they could experience the film just like a visually-impaired person would. This was meant to enhance the empathy towards persons with disabilities. Ms Alpa, one of the audience members who experienced the film blindfolded enthused, "We feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable when blindfolded even for a few minutes. But this experience gave me a greater appreciation of being blessed with eyes that can see the world around me."
Essar Foundation promotes the idea of greater acceptance, inclusion and a disabled-friendly society through Unmukt. Plans are afoot to screen audio described films under this program in 18 more cities across the country. Initiatives like Unmukt are the need of the hour in our country and Essar Foundation has stepped in to make a positive difference in the lives of the physically challenged, while inspiring the abled to be more sensitive human beings.