Vision Unlimited

 

The sound of a van halting in his village and a few men wearing white coats alighting from it caught the attention of fourteen-year-old Sivakumar. He rushed to see the men in action and realized that they had come to his village—Padavedu—to conduct an eye camp. He stood in a corner watching them work, and what fascinated him most was seeing his fellow villager, a paramedical worker, washing his hands often and vigorously in an unique way.  He picked up a conversation with him and learnt about eye camps and the role of optometrists.

 

The stories of eye surgeries narrated by the paramedical worker in the following days, inspired Sivakumar, and it was then he decided that his mission would be to restore eyesight to people. He completed a Diploma in Optometry at the Government Regional Institute of Ophthalmology in Chennai. His perseverance and hard work sought him employment at Sankara Nethralaya, a leading Tertiary Care hospital of Global repute, in Chennai.

 

With over a decade’s work experience at Sankara Nethralaya, Sivakumar clearly understood the major role optometrists played in the society.  He understood that uncorrected refractive error was the major cause of avoidable vision impairment, the second most common cause of blindness in India and the world generally. 

 

He was deeply shaken by the WHO’s Vision 2020 declaration, which clearly stated that  “Millions of people in India (and the rest of the world) still do not have access to basic eye care and refractive services, mainly due to a shortage of trained personnel to provide them. There are only 1,200 Optometrists against the need for 11,000 of them.” This made him realize that India needed many players in the field of Optometry, and Refractive Error focused eye camps at the door steps of a common man needed to be organized in order to overcome this problem. Thus, he started Alayem Eye Care, an optometric clinic where he identified and diagnosed refractive errors, and prescribed and marketed spectacles at prices which were affordable to all sections of the society.

 

Sivakumar grew anxious when he learnt that the weaker section of the community would not voluntarily have their eyes tested. The social entrepreneur in him found an innovative solution to resolve this issue, and address the optometric needs of the urban poor. He purchased a portable computerized eye testing equipment and conducted eye camps for the weaker sections in Chennai and its suburbs. He networked with the Lions club for financial support and with the support of few philanthropists he performed one eye camp in a week. These screening camps not only created awareness for the people at their door steps, but also helped Sivakumar to identify people with refractive errors, cataract problems, and those with other eye related problems.

 

Within four days of the camp, Sivakumar would provide spectacles from his shop ‘Aalayem Eye care’ to patients identified with refractive errors, at their doorsteps.  He referred people with cataract problems to hospitals within Chennai for free surgery. Other patients were referred to ophthalmologists for treatment at subsidized rates. These services enabled Sivakumar increase the sales margin from sale of spectacles, and the added earnings helped him to resolve the problem of needless blindness.

 

Strong networking with service providers, transparency, counseling, and follow up services were Sivakumar’s USP. A true social entrepreneur indeed! He continued to research for newer avenues to scale up his work.

 

He enrolled at Centre for Social Initiative and Management (CSIM) to develop his social entrepreneurial skills. He began to interact with other players in the field of vision care and also read about many social entrepreneurs.  The course offered by CSIM helped him hone his entrepreneurial skills.  He understood the magnitude and severity of the problem in a holistic way and decided to reach out to the villages surrounding Chennai as well. 

 

He organized outreach camps every weekend and deployed a  team of five persons to rural areas, suburban areas, slums, and industries to conduct vision check-up, and provide spectacles to those who needed them. Further, patients with other eye related problems were referred to local hospitals. It was at this point in time he realized the need for trained optometrists to scale up his mission to reach out to 10 million eyes.

 

Sivakumar believed that Optometrists, who were primary healthcare practitioners of eye and vision, can successfully manage the leading cause of vision impairment (refractive error), and can also help in alleviating the burden of other causes of blindness through diagnosis, management, and referrals. This prompted him to launch the ‘Sight Care Institute of Optometry’ and offer one-year and two-year certificate and diploma courses in Optometry to boys and girls.

 

“I hail from Ayyaneri, a hamlet near Sholingar Village. After completing my 12th standard, I underwent the three-month course on Optometry that was offered by Aalayam Eye care at Anew. I now work as an optometrist at KBKL optics at Mambalam, Chennai and earn Rs. 6000 a month. This course has changed my career and I want to become the best optometrist in the city one day”, says Asha.

 

Sivakumar envisions creating 200 Optometrists every year, which would provide succor to at least 300,000 people a year by solving their eye related problems.  This would enable him reach his goal of reaching out to 10 million eyes within a span of 6 years.