By: SUREKHA DHALETA
Naveen, who is in the vocational group, wants to set up his own shop. He has been learning the art of making candles at the vocational centre of Udaan. Girish, another student of the same group, very excitedly shows me the file covers, which he and his classmates have learnt to make at the centre, and also tells me meticulously about the procedure of making candles and the kinds of materials used for the candles…
This is a story of invincible spirit and unflinching dedication. It’s about the experience of meeting the needs of children with ‘special needs’ and thus illuminating lives that otherwise get lost in the the darkness of ignorance and neglect. Udaan, the parents and guardians’ society of mentally challenged children is an organisation committed for the cause of special kids and is running a day care centre as well as a respite care centre (residential facilities) for such children at Shimla. The project is one of its kinds in HP, which is being run in association with “National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities.” The learning centre (TLC) of Bishop Cotton School, Shimla is also closely associated with Udaan.
Initially, Udaan started as a pilot project for one year in Shimla in 2001 at the behest of the National Trust, and was left like an open-ended question with no future. Thereafter, with the exhortation of Mrs Mustafi, the then headmistress of Junior BCS, Udaan initiated as an NGO in 2002. In all, there are 28 children at Udaan, and 10 of them are presently availing hostel facilities. Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Udaan is also catering to people in Rohru and Kothkai blocks – a day care centre called Astitiva is being run in Rohru. At least 20 children are regularly attending this day care centre. Udaan is also running home-based programmes for bed-ridden special children in Shimla as well as Rohru and Kotkhai blocks, where special educators make frequent home visits. A fee of Rs 500 per month is charged at the day care centre, and Rs 1,500 is the hostel fee. Children coming from backward regions and belonging to poor families are also studying at Udaan, and six of them are sponsored students, whose study and living at Udaan is based on donations, though their parents are also charged a nominal fee.
What ails children at Udaan?
Children admitted here face conditions like have cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism, down’s syndrome and multiple disability. (We are using the term conditions here, because mentally challenged children do not suffer from a disease, it is a condition.)
Activities at Udaan
Children in the day care centre have been divided into four groups according to their levels of IQ. The four groups comprise playgroup, pre-primary group, primary group and vocational group respectively. The idea of this concept is to make them first learn simple steps and then move on to more complicated steps involved in the skill.
Play group is the preliminary level where basic things are taught – if children get aggressive, an attempt is made at this level to channelise their energy and get them engaged in some kind of activity. Pre-primary level involves making children learn basic alphabets, counting, names of animals, fruits vegetables, etc. Primary level involves making children to write their names and other things according to their ability. Vocational level is about imparting the skills of making candles, file-folder covers and making cards, etc. Besides this, they are taught dance, music, and are also made to do different exercises, yoga asanas, etc.
The most obvious question that remains with parents of mentally challenged children is What after them? Thus the main motive as educators at Udaan – Meenakshi and Krishna – elucidate is to make these children independent, ‘We impart toilet training to them, teach them table manners and special skills, and enhance their communication and vocational skills The children are taught the ability to cope with the activities of daily living. It is an integrated concept of learning behavioural, social, academic, vocational skills and self care. Their progress is monitored continuously and after that they are graduated to the next level. Besides regular consulting services, speech therapists, physiotherapists are also roped in to enhance the functioning of students.
Interaction with children at Udaan
Naveen, who is in the vocational group, wants to set up his own shop. He has been learning the art of making candles at the vocational center of Udaan. Girish, another student of the same group, very excitedly shows me the file covers, which he and his classmates have learnt to make at the center, and also tells me meticulously about the procedure of making candles and the kinds of materials used for the candles. Girish now commutes unescorted from his home at Chotta Shimla to the vocational center at New Shimla. Vinay, a pre-primary group student, is very fond of making people write, he makes me write his name several times. ‘Mera naam likho, mere Papa ka naam Likho, Akshay (his class mate) ka naam likho.’ His inquisitiveness is his strength, as he wants to know every thing and keeps on asking ‘Yeh Kya Hai?’ The recorder, the pen intrigues him, he wants to know in detail about everything. He is also very good at miming. Chinu is fond of sweets. As soon as I entered the room she asked me very innocently to give her a toffee. Shruti is very fond of music – she sings “Oh Laadi Shanta” and fondly hugs me. Anju who is now 23-year-old, till the age of 20 had been very aggressive but now can write, read, make tea, clean, and takes care of her mother when she falls sick. These examples show us how close such children are to what for us is normal behaviour.
Problems Udaan faces
Though Udaan is keen on providing hostel facilities to many more children belonging to the backward regions of Shimla, due to lack of space it presently cannot afford to house in more children. Lalita Rana, the administrator and one of the founder members of Udaan, and a mother of a differently abled child opines ‘We do not want to compromise on the quality of living. We want to give our children the best of standards, so we have to keep many children waiting for such facilities.’
Three centres of Udaan, namely the day care centre, the hostel and the vocational centre, are being run at three different places. Lack of consolidated space is one of the problems for Udaan. According to Lalita, though lack of space, paucity of funds and irregular supply of water are problems for Udaan but the attitude of the society at large continues to be the biggest problem for them. It was difficult for people to accept the proximity of a hostel of mentally challenged children to their houses. Initially people hurled abuses at children residing in the hostel. She laments the lack of sensitivity of some people towards issues like mental disabilities. She says that it’s not sympathy, it’s about redefining our perceptions.
To further corroborate the attitude of society at large, educator Meenakshi cites an example that a pre-primary group student, suffering from Down’s syndrome was admitted to the conventional or normal school for 11/2 month because of her excellent learning skills. (As children suffering from Down’s syndrome have exceptional intelligence and do certain tasks with perfection). But the child had to be withdrawn from the normal school as she was often called names at school and was unable to get individual teaching, and had to be re-admitted to Udaan. The keyword as Meenakshi opines is love – what they need is affection which can do wonders.
For further details contact
Parents & Guardians Society of Mentally Challenged Children of Shimla,
Block No-30, Set No-1, Phase III
New Shimla, HP,
Tel No– 01177 – 2673247
Mr. K.S. Rana – 9816119505
Mrs Lalita Rana- 9816219505