As Helen Keller once said, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it." Shreyashi DasGupta takes a peek into the world of special education to understand what it is like to face challenging situations every day.
When 15-year-old Sahil Kapoor was coming home from school, he saw a blind school girl struggling to cross the road. What's worse was that there was no one to help her out. The incident got him thinking about how such students travel every day and how they study. Like Sahil, most of you may have encountered individuals who are differently abled at some point or the other. But how many of you have tried to understand more about their lives?
'Differently abled' is a term used for people who are impaired, handicapped or disabled. Though we use the words 'impaired', 'disabled' and 'handicapped' interchangeably at times, they all have different meanings. These categories include the visually challenged, mentally challenged, autistic, deaf and aphasic individuals with learning problems. Asphasia is a medical condition in which a person is not able to speak, write or understand speech or writing because of damage to the brain.
Differently abled students go to special schools that educate them using special techniques and help them come to par with normal children. One such school is The Stephen High School for the Deaf and Aphasic in Dadar, Mumbai. Brother Reddy, Principal of the school says, "We started the school in 1957 and since then we are the only English medium school that educates these children up to class 10. Students from the suburbs and far off places like Kalyan and Virar commute to our school every day."
A teacher from the school adds, "In this school we encourage students to learn lip reading rather than sign language. This helps them become self-sufficient and allows them to easily merge into society." While it may be easier for the deaf to adjust to normal life, what happens to those who are visually impaired? According to a report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), close to 314 million people worldwide are visually impaired. Of this, 45 million are completely blind. We asked Suparna Suresh Ajgaonkar, director of Smt Kamala Mehta Dadar School for the Blind, to help us understand the status of the blind in the real world. Suparna said, "Visually-challenged students learn through Braille. Unfortunately many of these students are slow learners due to several other disability problems associated with their genetic make up. One needs to be extremely patient while teaching these students. The teacher needs to give students confidence and use interactive teaching aids while imparting knowledge to ensure that these students imbibe it."
As a medium of communication, Braille is difficult to learn. But to help the children improve their Braille reading capabilities, the school has also set up a Braille library with books on a variety of topics. The school has also set up a language laboratory where teachers assist students in improving their language skills. The students are also given individual guidance to correct their pronunciation and speaking skills, which helps them communicate effectively. Proper communication helps build self-confidence and enhances the students' ability to find jobs. This school also helps students take up further education in junior and senior colleges.
Another NGO-run school called Able Disabled All People Together (ADAPT), formerly known as the Spastics Society of India, takes education a step further by getting students ready for employment. This school was set up in 1972 by Dr Mithu Alur. Deputy Director of ADAPT, Manju Chatterjee says, "We at ADAPT have 68 disabled students and 32 underprivileged students from the slums in Dharavi and other areas. This school helps integrate both these populations and teaches them to be sensitive towards each other's needs." From a special school started with three children, the school now provides services that include assessment, treatment, vocational guidance, training and job placement.
Though many organisations and schools have taken courageous steps to silently work for the differently abled, the government hasn't really managed to solve the most basic need of transportation. Manju says, "Due to the nature of the students' disabilities and the lack of transport options, many parents tend to carry their children to school." Brother Reddy adds, "The situation is worse for deaf students. It's extremely difficult for them to commute on roads, as they can't hear any sounds."
The situation worsens when normal children start making fun of these disabled children. A parent of a 14-year-old says, "My child is ridiculed most of the time and people tend to lose their patience around him. Even if he wants to do something he ends up getting dejected. I know it will take a long time for him to achieve his goal but we need to help him reach that point. Perseverance pays." Suparna adds, "In spite of all the problems we face, our happiest moment is when we see some of our students reach the top." Many students from these schools have been placed in corporate houses and the banking sector and some have even emerged as successful teachers.
Toshan Chatterjee is one such student. He suffered from cerebral palsy and joined ADAPT when he was only 18 months old. Today, he is a political science graduate from St Xavier's College, Mumbai and the first student with a disability to have enrolled for a three-year degree course in software engineering at GNIIT. Toshan owes his success to his teacher, Dr Mithu Alur. Toshan believes that with love and support, nothing is impossible to achieve.The need of the hour for us is to be sensitive towards differently abled students and make them a part of our daily lives.