The Braille Monitor                                                                                         November, 2003


From India with Hope

by Deborah Kent Stein

Syed Yousufuddin
Syed Yousufuddin

From the Editor: Debbie Stein is a leader in the Illinois affiliate and a professional writer. She often uses her talent to introduce us all to interesting Federationists. Here is another profile that will inspire and encourage us all. Meet Syed Yousufuddin:


Syed Yousufuddin grew up surrounded by an aura of privilege. In a family of six children, he was the only boy. Sons were prized in south central India, and Syed was the prince of the household. The girls went to public schools, but Syed was sent to an expensive private academy run by Christian missionaries. At school he fell in love with the game of cricket. He even slept with his cricket bat beside him.

In 1986, when Syed was in ninth grade, he developed cataracts. The right eye was most severely affected. Surgery proved unsuccessful, and he lost the vision in that eye. Life quickly returned to normal. Syed learned to drive a car and even rode a motorcycle.

Syed's father wanted him to go into engineering, but he struggled with math courses. Finally he decided to major in business. While he was still in school, he took a job selling educational products. He continued in this position after he obtained his bachelor's degree in 1992. The job required extensive travel, and he visited cities all over India.

In 1991 Syed noticed a slight blurring of his vision. The doctor was shocked by what he saw--a major retinal detachment in Syed's left eye. He couldn't understand how Syed was managing so well. Half-joking, Syed replied, "I am courageous." Syed's father rushed him to the city of Madras, where he saw a specialist at India's finest eye hospital. The doctors said there was still a 50/50 chance that Syed's vision could be saved; surgery was his only hope. He underwent the operation to reattach his damaged retina. When the doctors removed the bandages, he couldn't see a thing. The doctors assured him that his vision would recover slowly.

Syed returned home, where his friends and family waited on him as though he were royalty. Someone was always standing by to cut up his food, do his laundry, even to escort him to the bathroom in his own house. He scarcely took a step on his own. As the weeks passed, the doctors' predictions came true. Little by little Syed's vision began to return. Eventually he went back to his studies and his sales job.

In 1995 Syed started his own investment business, buying and selling stocks. About a year later he again noticed fuzzy vision in his left eye. When he went back to Madras, the specialist told him that he had glaucoma. This time the doctors advised against surgery. They thought the condition could be controlled with drops. The drops didn't seem to help. As his vision faded and his pain increased, the doctors grew evasive. They never gave him straight answers. They simply increased the dosage of his glaucoma medication.

Once more Syed's devoted sisters were there to help him. They led him from place to place and waited on him day and night. Syed assured himself that his vision would begin coming back as it had after his surgery years before. But as the months passed, he could see less and less. He could no longer read print or recognize faces. He couldn't see steps or obstacles in his path. Finally he had to admit to himself that he no longer had any useful vision.

Syed knew he couldn't spend the rest of his life being waited on. He had to do something constructive. When he heard that a friend was selling a small business, he purchased the company, which trained students to use computers. Unfortunately the business was shaky when Syed bought it, and it failed within six months. Once more Syed was in limbo.

Surely, Syed thought, somewhere there must be a cure for his blindness. He knew he had exhausted the medical resources in India, but perhaps a doctor in the United States would be able to help him. His doctors in Madras didn't offer much hope, but reluctantly they gave him the names of a few American ophthalmologists. Syed wrote first to a doctor in New York; he had a friend in Connecticut who could provide him with a place to stay if he went to consult with her. The doctor wrote back and asked to see Syed's medical records. For the next year they exchanged letters and even phone calls while the doctor weighed the question of whether it would be worthwhile for Syed to make the trip. At last she agreed to see him, and he hurried to the U.S. consulate to obtain his visa. Eagerly, fearfully, he prepared for a solo journey halfway around the world.

Since losing his sight, Syed had never traveled alone, not even in his own town. Now his family drove him to the airport and left him in the hands of a friendly flight attendant. To his relief the journey was a smooth one, and his friend was there to greet him at the airport in New York. The next day Syed went to see the ophthalmologist. He had come so far to see her that he was convinced she would be able to work a miracle. But after she examined his eyes, her voice was grim. She could do nothing, she told him somberly. His blindness was irreversible.

Syed was still not ready to give up. His father had a longtime friend who lived in Chicago. Syed contacted his father's friend and arranged to stay with him while visiting a doctor there. The ophthalmologist in Chicago was a bit more encouraging and suggested that Syed might eventually be a candidate for laser surgery. However, it would take time. First they would have to bring down the pressure in his eye; then they would find out what could be done.

Syed had a number of relatives in the Chicago area. As soon as he arrived, distant cousins and their families began dropping in to visit him. Everyone made a great fuss over him. Again and again he heard what a poor fellow he was and what a burden it must be to live as a blind man. Their words grated on his soul. He didn't want anyone's pity. Blind or sighted, he wanted to rebuild his life.

To get to know people in Chicago, Syed began to visit an Indian community center. People there told him about an Indian man named Naweed who was blind and worked as a computer programmer for All-State Insurance. It was the first time Syed had heard of a blind person who lived independently. He called Naweed, and they had a long talk. Naweed gave him a list of resources, and Syed started making phone calls. One of the organizations on Naweed's list was the National Federation of the Blind.

The national office put Syed in touch with Steve Benson, then president of the NFB of Illinois. Syed told him he wanted to learn to get around on his own, and Steve promised to find some people to help him. Syed had no idea that the NFB is an organization of blind people. It never occurred to him that Steve Benson was blind himself.

A few days later two members of the NFB Chicago chapter appeared at Syed's door. Steve Hastalis and Steve Handschu had come to give him his first lesson in cane travel. When he discovered that both of them were blind, Syed was astonished. How had they found his house? And how would they be able to teach him the things he needed to learn? They had brought him a long NFB cane. When he took it in his hands, Syed felt a change come over him. He had never wanted a cane before, but now he realized it was the key to freedom. Out on the street with his two new friends he explored the sidewalk and the grass and noted curbs and driveways. After his second lesson he began exploring on his own.

In May of 2001 Syed Yousufuddin attended his first NFB chapter meeting. Suddenly he was in a room with dozens of blind people who led interesting, productive lives. Vileen Shah, a chapter member who was also from India, showed him the Braille alphabet. When he gave him a week to memorize the Braille symbols, Syed protested that it would be too hard. "Well, if that's too hard, I guess you won't learn Braille," Vileen said. Syed took it as a challenge. By the next day he had learned the Braille alphabet by heart.

One day Syed received a surprise call from Steve Benson. "Syed," Steve said, "How would you like to go to BLIND, Incorporated, in Minnesota?" Syed had only the vaguest idea what the NFB training centers were like. He had never imagined that he could attend one. Somehow Steve Benson and Joyce Scanlan had made all the arrangements. On June 15, only a month after he attended his first NFB meeting, Syed entered boot camp for the blind.

Syed stayed at BLIND, Incorporated, for six months, learning Braille, travel, computers, and a host of daily living skills.

Taped speeches by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and Dr. Marc Maurer impressed him deeply. Seminars and informal discussions transformed his attitude about blindness. He returned to Chicago, confident in his abilities and eager to make his mark on the world.

While searching for a full-time job in sales, Syed sells products for a cosmetics company. He volunteers at the Lutheran Ministry in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, teaching English and minding the desk. He would love to work at an NFB center some day, teaching the skills he learned in Minnesota.

Syed is profoundly grateful to the many people who have helped him along the way. His cousin Azra Qadri and her husband Namadh Qadri have been a source of boundless support. Patti Chang and Joyce Scanlan gave generously of their time and expertise. He is especially grateful to the three Steves--Benson, Handschu, and Hastalis--who gave him his first taste of Federationism and helped him understand that it is respectable to be blind.