CHENNAI: A whistle blows and Dhruv Charan is reminded of his task at hand. He has 90 seconds to fit a card into an envelope. It takes him one long minute to find its opening. He then looks up at an audience waiting to see if his attention span will keep him seated, and before we realise, he slips the card in, and runs off.
Dhruv is six. He was born a premature child, and grew up with speech and coordination difficulties. His mother, Sukanya Mageshwari, has been bringing him to Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children for a year. She says, “He can now frame meaningful sentences now. But I will wait for at least three years before sending him to a mainstream school.”
The Centre began with three children in 1989, and has trained over 5,500 children with mental disabilities and associated conditions. Children from birth to six years are admitted, and individual education programmes are formed depending on each child’s abilities. They learn to perform daily activities like eating, dressing, walking, and speaking, and mothers of children below two years come to the centre to undergo different parental training programmes.
“From daily wage workers to high-salaried parents, people across all socio-economic groups bring their children with disabilities to us. We believe in ‘upanayanam’ as our intervention method,” says Vimala Kannan, founder principal and member of board at the centre, adding, “Our children are ‘exceptional’ because they are on the other side of the intelligence spectrum.”
With 17 special educators, four therapists, and a 10:2 student-teacher ratio in each class, the centre aims to get children ready for mainstream education. “We identify where they differ from typically developing children, and make a detailed assessment. Four to six-year old children who are ready to slowly get exposed to crowded spaces, attend a 10-day programme called Sambhavanam. They’re taken to super markets, beaches and temples in order to get exposed to communities,” she says.
Parents from other states in India and abroad have contacted the centre for assessment programmes, and in some cases, visited for short durations. An Indian mother who stays in the US, and has been coming to the centre for two weeks, says, “My son is autistic and needs sensory stimuli to help his development. The environment in the US, with wooden floors and carpets, is limiting. And the treatment centres there have very long waiting lists. So, when someone suggested that I bring him here, I agreed. I now see him getting along well with children here, and it’s been positive,” she says.
Most teachers at the centre are parents of children with disabilities. Geetha Lakshmi, a special educator who has been teaching at the centre for four years, says, “My son used to go to a regular school, but he struggled to mingle. That’s when I found out he needed a special school. So I moved from Dindivanam to Chennai, and I found out about the centre from a doctor. I come here to help train other children,” says Geetha.
While parents like Geetha do the diploma course in special education conducted at the centre, other parents from lesser-educated backgrounds join as caretakers or staff assistants. Bhavani T from Kovilambakkam brings her seven-year-old daughter to the centre every day, and works here as a caretaker. She says, “My daughter had speech defects. She wouldn’t even know when to say she had to use the bathroom. But now she’s learning with the other children around her. She’s happy, and her face has cleared up.”
All children from the centre go on to join mainstream schools or special schools depending on the progress they make. “We support them for three years after they leave, and visit the child’s classroom as and when needed,” says Vimala, adding that they are given detailed skill and training reports and assessments.
The centre is funded by grants from the government, and contributions made by parents. Apart from the special educator training programme at the centre, they conduct workshops for trainers from 31 districts in Tamil Nadu, and undertake initiatives as a part of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme.
The Centre is located at #18, Prakasam Street, T Nagar. For details visit www.mncindia.org or call: 28340574 / 28340575