Beno Zephine’s achievement is a shot in the arm for me and for millions of women in India! She is India’s first 100% visually challenged women to be selected for the Indian Foreign Service on merit. In fact I have been looking all over the internet to see if there was a precedent for a woman in such a position elsewhere in the world. I was aware of Avraham Rabby, America’s first blind diplomat, because I interacted with him on a teleconference several years ago at the US Consulate, Chennai at an event to mark World Disability Day. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Pakistan has been ahead of India, with Salma Saleem entering into their Diplomatic Service in as early as 2008. Our own Beno Zephine joins this list of illustrious diplomats who are trailblazing the international arena of diplomatic challenges with their charm, persuasion and personality.
Ms. Beno scored an All India rank of 343 in the UPSC exams results declared in 2014. Though she was selected a year ago, it took an entire year for the government to allocate her to the IFS as they had to make procedural changes in their rules for her accommodation. Finally the changes were made and she created history as India’s first officer with a visual challenge in the diplomatic service.
There is nothing extraordinary in Beno’s upbringing and family circumstances other than the fact of her parents unflinching support for her to pursue her dreams. Her father Luke Anthony Charles works in the Railways in the IRTC department and mother Mary Padmaja is a house maker. She has a brother who is a Software Engineer working in Canada.
Born with a 100% visual impairment, Beno went to the Little Flower Convent Higher Secondary School, and later graduated from the Stella Maris College, Chennai with a B.A in English Literature. She did her post-graduation in M.A. English Literature from Loyola College, Chennai.
There were not many books that are accessible for Beno in audio or Braille and particularly books for civil service aspirants are hardly sufficient or available. Beno and her parents spent a lot of time in getting several of the material converted into Braille. She also used special software called JAWS – (Job Access with Speech) that allows her to read from the screen. She also prepared by scanning the required papers on to her computer. During preparation her mother spent several hours reading for Beno from Daily newspapers, magazines and from all the other books that were not readily available in JAWS compatible format or on Braille.
She lost out in her first attempt for the Civil Services but she didn’t give up. The second time that she tried in 2013-14 she got through. “The first time, I studied really hard. The second time was easier,” said Beno Zephine. Speaking at a felicitation program for her organised by the Society for Rights of All Women with Disability of which I am an office bearer, Beno Zephine wanted women everywhere not to give up on their dreams and to pursue them with fresh vigour not counting the difficulties.
Speaking at the felicitation program the Chief Guest Ms. Shantha Sheela Nair IAS, Vice- Chair Person, TN State Planning Commission. Ms. Nair, said that this is not only an achievement for a woman with a disability to enter the diplomatic corps, but that it is a feat for any woman to be involved in the fore-front of international policy and decision making. She urged Ms. Beno to document her experiences on a daily basis and to share her journey with the public at large on an ongoing basis in the form of blogs, articles to the newspapers etc. She stressed Ms. Beno’s moral obligation to inspire people coming after her.
What struck me about this young woman was her quiet confidence, and joyful personality. What moved me was her parent’s commitment to her welfare. What frightened me was that henceforth, all women with disability will be compared to Beno for raising the bar so high, and that a repeat or a catch up will be daunting! But what thrilled me was that the Law of the land was catching up with the rights and entitlements of all persons with disability. In future it will become difficult for the Government to deny them what is their due.
Hurrah for Beno! I wish her all the best for a stellar career!