Sharanya Jain, a remarkable class XII student at Carmel Convent School, Sector 9, Chandigarh, has gone above and beyond the ordinary routines of studying and hanging out with friends. She is the passionate founder of The Netra Foundation, a distinguished non-profit organization dedicated to the betterment and upliftment of blind children through a range of thoughtful activities. These initiatives include organizing free eye check-up camps, publishing textbooks in Braille, recording audiobooks for visually impaired students, and conducting eye donation awareness campaigns.
In a recent collaboration with the Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH-32), The Netra Foundation achieved a significant milestone. Nine visually impaired students from the Institute for the Blind, Sector 26, Chandigarh, received Low Vision Aids (LVAs) that were personalized to cater to their specific needs. The distribution of these LVAs took place at the Eye department of GMCH-32. For some, this generous act enhanced their vision, while for others, it marked the first time they could see the world around them.
Filled with gratitude and determination, Sharanya Jain expressed her feelings, saying, “I feel immensely blessed that after two years of continuous efforts, we were finally able to bring about a change in someone’s life. Our journey does not stop here, and I hope that in the coming years, we can spread greater awareness about low vision aids and be able to bring light to the world of even more visually impaired people.”
In a candid conversation, we had the privilege of speaking with Sharanya about her extraordinary journey and her plans to extend the impact of The Netra Foundation further.
How did you start this journey? What were some challenges that you had to encounter?
Initially, it started off as just me and my mom recording audiobooks together. When more and more people started to volunteer, our aim branched off into organising eye donation awareness campaigns, publishing books in braille, organising eye checkup camps, etc.
One of the biggest challenges we faced in the early stages of our journey was getting eye donation pledges signed. In India, corneal blindness is the leading cause of blindness among patients aged below 50 years, accounting for about 37.5% of all cases. In most cases, vision can be restored through a corneal transplant, which has a success rate of up to 90%. But in India, there is a taboo that those who donate their eyes in this life and are born without eyes in the next. This was a major hurdle and I could not even convince my own grandparents to sign the pledges. But then, the household help at my home – young, newly married – volunteered to sign one herself, I thought that the best way to reach the maximum number of people would be through the youth, who are the most influential part of society. We started organising eye donation camps at schools and universities around Chandigarh, and soon, we had over 150 forms signed.
Tell us more about the impact that you’ve created with the Netra Foundation so far.
Through Netra, I wrote and published ‘Programming Taught in Braille’ India’s first-ever computer programming guide in Braille, aimed at making education accessible for all and promoting students with disabilities in STEM. I also co-authored ‘Computer Science in Braille’, a three-part textbook series for preparing for CS for the 12th board exams (also a first in India) with my computer science teacher Ms. Harpreet Malvai, and it will be out and available for purchase very soon.
We were also able to get over 150 eye donation pledges signed.
Through our camps all across the city, we were able to generate enough awareness and support to get nine visually impaired students fitted with personalised low-vision aids, enhancing the vision of some and allowing others to see for the first time. It was a beautiful moment when Tushar Gupta, a beneficiary, burst into tears at the sight of his sister for the first time.
How do you strike a balance between your studies and this initiative?
As a 12th-grade science student, it is definitely difficult to find a balance between studies and volunteer work. I am also the head girl of Carmel Convent School, which is also something that I dedicate a lot of my time to. But this project is a passion of mine that my life would be incomplete without, and through the unwavering support of my mother and father, I’ve successfully been able to juggle between studies and managing the foundation. When I had exams, my mother took an off from her work to organise eye checkup camps in my place, and I feel blessed to have such supportive parents. I’ve written books in braille and scored 98.4% on my 10th-grade boards at the same time all because of my parents.
What are your plans for expansion in the years to come?
As technology advances every single day, we hope to provide better and more personalised low vision aids to more and more visually impaired people, bringing light into their lives.
One of our biggest aims is to eradicate corneal blindness from India, which we will work towards every single year, getting eye donation pledges signed by as many people as we can until there is no shortage of corneal tissue for transplant.