Perhaps no other person has done more to build an inclusive digital Bangladesh than Vashkar Bhattacharjee. Working directly with the Aspire to Innovate (a2i) program, initiated by the Prime Minister’s Office, as a national consultant for the Digital Bangladesh Initiative, Vashkar spearheaded a massive overhaul of the country’s sprawling digital infrastructure. “Our government runs the largest web portal in the world,” he told ABILITY Magazine, “with more than 33,000 websites connected to a single central hub.” Thanks to Vashkar and his team, all 33,000 websites are now accessible for persons with disabilities, as are more than 200 government e-services.
With such robust online infrastructure comes an equally substantive digital divide. “For persons with access to technology,” Vashkar explained, “Bangladesh has almost everything. But many persons don’t have access, especially persons with disabilities. They might not have computers in their homes, or smartphones, or even electricity. This is something we must work to change.”
Vashkar, who served as an accessibility consultant for the United Nations Development Programme, Bangladesh in 2013, has since drafted Bangladesh’s National Web Accessibility Guidelines in accordance with the international W3C 2.0 Standard, led a tremendous, country-wide push to convert written materials to accessible formats, and pioneered a disability-inclusive education initiative that’s responsible for making one of Bangladesh’s top universities inclusive for persons with disabilities. All these achievements have been tied to personal experience, of course, but none more so than the last. The University of Chittagong, now Bangladesh’s first disability-inclusive institution of higher learning, is Vashkar’s alma mater, despite once denying him admission because he is blind.
To be fair to the University of Chittagong, they weren’t the only ones to stonewall Vashkar. “I tried to enter many universities,” he said, “but they all refused my application. Some other visually impaired applicants and I began a hunger strike. Suddenly, the University of Chittagong decided to let us in!”
Getting through the door was but the first of many hurdles. The faculty had never taught students with visual impairments, and many still labored under the impression that persons with disabilities are nothing but a burden on society, unable to become productive citizens. “One day,” recalled Vashkar, “I was taking notes on my Braille slate, and the professor thought I was playing games. He told me to stand up and leave the room. I complained to the head of the department, who called the professor to his office. He was shocked when I read my Braille notes back to him. He thought it was magic!”
Even before arriving at the university, Vashkar had grown accustomed to navigating disabling attitudes. Born in 1979 in the remote, southeastern village of Bagdondi, Chittagong, he’d gone to a primary school for children with visual impairments, but attended junior high and high school with his sighted peers. “My family was very frustrated by the lack of resources,” he remembered. “My father was a civil servant, my mother is a housewife, and both are well educated. When I was two years old and they discovered I was blind, they resolved to do everything in their power to support me. But this idea was rare.”
In those days, Bagdondi didn’t even have physicians or hospitals, much less accessible education facilities. After an extended period of searching, Vashkar’s father finally met an eye doctor who told him of a primary school for blind children in Chittagong. For junior high, however, he had no choice but to attend the mainstream school. “There were no Braille books and very few Braille papers or writing frames,” he said. “The teachers didn’t know how to teach me.” High school brought more of the same. Because of these experiences, Vashkar entered the University of Chittagong with his armor on.
Now, thanks to his efforts, the university has introduced a quota system, removing barriers to enrollment and reserving places for students with disabilities. Accessible reading materials are available, as are fellowships for students with disabilities and over 300 free online courses, which students can access through MuktoPaath, a self-directed digital learning platform. Students with disabilities can also avail themselves of university computers and smartphones and receive training on how to use them.
In addition to policy changes and material resources, Vashkar also provides guidance and education to the Association of Students with Disabilities, a student group active on the University of Chittagong campus. The group has received training on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—“Bangladesh,” Vashkar noted proudly, “was the first country to sign and ratify the treaty with all the optional protocols”–as well as the Bangladeshi Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protections Act of 2013. In addition to these legal tools, training underscores effective methods of advocacy and activism.
“Today,” said Vashkar, “no student should go through what I went through at the university. This is very important to me.”
Vashkar’s difficulties didn’t end with graduation. “I finished my MA in general history,” he said, “and then, for some time, I was unemployed.” Few Bangladeshis with disabilities have access to education, fewer still enter the workforce–“Most,” Vashkar noted, “end up begging on the street”–and even those who do find jobs tend to get relegated to specific roles and sectors. Those with visual impairments, for example, usually become instructors in schools for the blind, or else work with international NGOs. This dynamic breeds a vicious cycle of ignorance and exclusion. Most domestic employers have no experience hiring or supervising persons with disabilities, and hence no reason to question the stereotype that persons with disabilities cannot work. Even as Bangladesh makes massive strides toward legal protection and digital inclusion for persons with disabilities, the job market remains supersaturated with disabling attitudes.
Eventually, Vashkar realized that simply having a degree wouldn’t land him a job. For that, he would need technological skills. He began researching opportunities and, in 2002, secured a place in the Duskin Leadership Training Program, a Japan-based initiative that serves young persons with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific who aspire to leadership roles. “That was a turning point in my life,” said Vashkar. “I came to understand my purpose: in a nutshell, to make services inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities.”
After finishing the program in 2003, he began volunteering with Young People in Social Action (YPSA), an organization based in Chittagong, developing computerized Braille production and enabling more efficient printing and distribution of Braille materials. In 2005, he was introduced to the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium and became an international trainer, teaching others how to the use digital assistive technologies. He brought DAISY to Bangladesh and, with support from the national Service Innovation Fund of a2i, per the Prime Minister’s Office, began converting textbooks to multimedia digital talking books. From this format, they can be converted to accessible e-books or digital Braille books, which in turn can be printed and distributed with relative ease.
“When my elder daughter was in grade one,” he said, “she would come to me asking for help with her reading. She was getting only printed books from the school, so of course I couldn’t help her. Now, we have books that we can read together.”
Because of this initiative, all Bangladeshi textbooks used in classes one through 12 have now been converted to accessible formats. Bangla-language e-reading software has also been developed, as has the country’s first accessible dictionary–critical infrastructure for Bangladeshis who don’t speak English and are visually impaired. For this work, Vashkar has received no shortage of accolades and media attention, racking up approximately one national or international award per year between 2014 and 2021. “Search my name in Bangla or in English on any search engine, and you will find hundreds, maybe thousands of articles,” he said. “Even, I’m the first person with a disability to serve in an advisory capacity to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s Office. This makes a big difference. Having access to policymakers enables us to do a great deal more.”
In recent years, Vashkar has continued his efforts to build out Bangladesh’s digital infrastructure and make more resources available for persons with disabilities. “We must have accessible platforms for knowledge exchange so we can learn from one another,” he said. To this end, he’s currently developing e-commerce platforms, enabling thousands of entrepreneurs with disabilities to connect with each other and build partnerships across national borders.
Since the advent of COVID-19, Vashkar has helped make health-related information and services accessible for persons with disabilities in the form of a national helpline. “It’s been very difficult for us,” he reflected. “Many students with disabilities only can access technology at the university, and now we’re confined to our homes. People used to happily help us cross the road, but these days, nobody approaches anybody. Persons with disabilities sometimes don’t know where to go in case of illness, or which medical professionals will treat us well. Now, though,” he added, “we are feeling more confident as more people are vaccinated.”
Vashkar still works with YPSA in an advisory capacity, a responsibility he balances with many other roles and affiliations, as well as family life. He’s happily married with “two lovely daughters,” who are six and 14, and the Bhattacharjee family lives in Chittagong District, in the bustling coastal city of the same name. Vashkar continues to conduct accessibility audits and publish reports, research and articles on national and international platforms, and he’s passing on his passion for disability advocacy to his daughters. “She loves to help my colleagues with disabilities however she can,” he said proudly of his elder daughter. “At school, she’s befriended all the children with disabilities. We celebrate her birthdays with people from the disabled community. The children see that I’m blind, that I do all these things, that it’s normal. This is how we build a better future in which persons with disabilities enjoy the same rights as every other human being.”
by Itto Outini
Journalist with ABILITY Magazine | Founder and President of Fulbrighters with Disabilities | Disability Inclusion Specialist with UNDP