The woman who’s appeared for 700-plus exams – to help disabled students

Why We Wrote This

Pushpa Nagaraj knows what it’s like to fear your chance at an education could slip out of reach. Today, she’s helping students with disabilities take control of their future, one test at a time.

Ganesh Vancheeswaran
Pushpa Nagaraj feared she'd have to drop out of school when her family experienced financial hardship. Today, those memories of having a question mark over her schooling motivate her to volunteer as an exam scribe for disabled students.

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When Pushpa Nagaraj was growing up in Bangalore, the glitzy high-tech capital of India, her father lost his job after an injury, and the family suddenly found itself struggling. Her brother dropped out of school to take odd jobs – and Ms. Nagaraj feared she’d have to as well.

Today, she has a full-time job at an IT firm. But she’s never forgotten what it’s like to have a question mark over her future.

Since 2007, Ms. Nagaraj has been a volunteer scribe, patiently reading exams aloud and recording answers for hundreds of students with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments.

Many disabled students “balk at the prospect of writing exams and drop out,” says Vijaya Sundararaman, a trustee at the Vinyasa Trust for Differently Challenged, who helped Ms. Nagaraj begin volunteering. “And so, their education comes to an abrupt halt, midway.”

Word about Ms. Nagaraj’s volunteering has spread, and she now gets requests from people in Jaipur and the state of Sikkim, both located more than 1,000 miles from Bangalore. She’s also established a network of volunteers who help each other field requests.

It’s challenging work to maintain with her full-time schedule. But “I have no complaints,” she says. “Actually, I feel very blessed.”

Next week, Pushpa Nagaraj will appear for her 720th exam. But she won’t be taking the exam for herself. 

Since 2007, Ms. Nagaraj has helped hundreds of visually challenged students take exams by acting as their scribe, reading them the questions and then writing down the answers they give. Despite government guidelines, few schools can actually guarantee this service.

While Ms. Nagaraj’s vision is fine, she knows what it’s like to have a shadow cast over one’s future. When she was growing up in the South Indian city of Bangalore, the glitzy IT capital of India, her father lost his job after a back injury. The family suddenly found itself in dire circumstances. Her brother dropped out of school and took odd jobs, while her mother made a meager salary at a small factory. Ms. Nagaraj, then in seventh grade, thought she’d have to drop out as well.

After knocking on several doors, her mother managed to raise enough money to educate her daughter through high school.

“A few kind souls, including my teachers, lent us money for my school fees,” Ms. Nagaraj recalls.

Knowing that college was out of reach, she started working as a telephone booth operator. Today, she’s a project coordinator for an IT firm.

One day, as she was helping a few visually impaired children cross the road, it struck her how difficult even everyday tasks could be for them. Her home was next to Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, which advocates for visually impaired children, and she began to discuss their challenges with Vijaya Sundararaman, who was then a volunteer there. 

Ms. Nagaraj wanted to help others come at least as far as she had in life. “Since I had struggled to complete my schooling, I wanted to ease the journey of these children a bit,” she says.

“Given the hardships she had faced in school, she wanted to lessen the pain for other students as much as she could,” recalls Ms. Sundararaman.

“One step closer”

Ms. Sundararaman encouraged Ms. Nagaraj to record audiobooks for the children to use. Soon, she “graduated” to scribing for them during exams. She extends the same service to students with conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, or broken arms.

Take Karthik Ramesh, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Ms. Nagaraj scribed for him once. 

“Before the exam started, she established a rapport with Karthik,” says his father, Ramesh Borappa. “She told him to be calm and just think of answers to the questions. She would take care of the rest, she said. This really put Karthik’s mind at ease. Often, she would have to read out a question to him several times before he understood it. But she did it patiently. For my son, Pushpa is indeed a godsend.”

Roughly 40 million people in India have some degree of visual impairment, and most children with sight challenges do not have access to specialized schooling. Many do not pursue formal education at all. But even for those who attend mainstream classes, timed exams – key for Indian educational institutions, where scores are especially important – present additional difficulties.

“Many of them balk at the prospect of writing exams and drop out,” says Ms. Sundararaman, now a trustee at the Bangalore-based Vinyasa Trust for Differently Challenged, which supports students with disabilities. “And so, their education comes to an abrupt halt, midway.”

Having a scribe, who can read out questions and record the student’s answers, can be the difference between passing and failing.

“In spite of working much harder than my sighted friends to learn the same topics, I used to be worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey my answers at the exam,” says Rakshith Nagabhushan, who is blind. Ms. Nagaraj scribed for him when he was a student at the Canara Bank School of Management Studies in Bangalore.

“When I pass an exam, I know I am one step closer to finding a job,” adds Mr. Nagabhushan, who has now applied for an advanced employability course, as a precursor to getting a job that uses his computer skills.

Scribing takes extreme patience, deep listening skills, and empathy. “Initially, I was very afraid. ... What if I misunderstood a student and wrote down a wrong answer? The student would suffer!” Ms. Nagaraj says.

But gradually, she shed her doubts. Over the past 12 years, word about her work has spread – so much so that she now gets requests from people in Jaipur and the state of Sikkim, both of which are located more than 1,000 miles from Bangalore.

“Knowing that Pushpa madam will patiently sit through the exam with me means so much,” says Veerendra Naik, a student at KLE College in Bangalore, for whom Ms. Nagaraj has scribed three exams. “She allows me to calmly think of the answers.”

Karen Norris/Staff

Growing reach

Without a formal system for scribing, students rely on informal networks of volunteers. Over the years, Ms. Nagaraj has built relationships with a few nonprofit organizations in Bangalore, where she coordinates requests. She has also set up a network of volunteers that posts requests through a WhatsApp group.

“If I can’t take on a scribing assignment, chances are someone else can,” says Kavya Thimmaiah, a member of the group. “It helps people like me channel our desire to help others.” 

The number of scribes is growing, Ms. Nagaraj says. She attributes this, in part, to more awareness of disabilities.

Meanwhile, she continues to do much of the scribing herself. She wrote 17 exams in June alone.

Earlier this year, on International Women’s Day, she received the Nari Shakti Puraskar (The Strength of a Woman Award) – India’s highest civilian award for contributions by women, given by the president of India. It has deeply encouraged not just her, but the entire scribing community – and, she hopes, it will encourage more volunteers to come forward. 

Ms. Nagaraj is keenly aware of ongoing challenges, chief of which is that, every once in a while, she has to ward off requests from students to give them the answers during exams. Another challenge is to expand the circle of scribes. Despite these, she is immensely grateful for having the opportunity to help others. “I have no complaints. Actually, I feel very blessed,” she says.

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