In 1999, Sulata Ajit, a trained special educator, along with Subhashini Rao and Lakshmi Krishnakumar, started Sankalp in Chennai as a part-time remedial centre for children with learning disabilities. It has now grown into an open school for children with learning disability or dyslexia and a separate learning centre for children with autism spectrum disorder.
“We were working in schools earlier and had an experience of about five-six years when we came together to start our own school,” says Rao. Thirteen years ago, there were not many schools for autistic children and the trio of Sankalp were teeming with children. All the three founders specialise in different areas — Ajit in special education, Rao in school administration and Krishnakumar in learning disability.
“Soon we realised that we could not have maintained the school as one umbrella destination. There was also some opposition from parents of children with learning disabilities, so we divided the two schools,” says Ajit.
Despite opposition from parents, the neighbours have been empathetic of the work that Sankalp does. “Our school is in a completely residential locality. Sometimes our kids land up at a neighbouring house or throw balls into their homes. Regardless of this, neighbours appreciate our work and have never complained about the children,” shares Ajit.
With a teacher strength of around 55, Sankalp has a student teacher ratio of 1:2 and focuses its resources on readying the kids for school. “Once our students attain school-readiness skills, we put them into a mainstream school. We would love to keep track of the progress of these children but we do not have manpower for follow-up. Hopefully we will achieve this in the near future,” says from Ajit.
In addition to offering their services to children, Sankalp also offers training for educators who wish to specialise in learning disability. “It is not mandated that the learning disability specialisation programme be accredited by Rehabilitation Council of India, hence we offer a one-and-a-half-month certificate course which is delivered by a team from Sankalp and led by Krishnakumar,” says Ajit. For details, visit www. sankalpnet.org
Vasudha Prakash | V-Excel Educational Trust
According to Vasudha Prakash, every minute in life is a learning experience and we need to keep asking ourselves if we like this curriculum called life and if we are ready to step into it. Prakash is the founder and director of V-Excel Educational Trust, Chennai, a nonprofit for children with special needs. Started in 2002, V-Excel caters to educating children with special needs. “It was my idea to start a trust and set up a school, but now it is a collective work, with the involvement of many people. The journey has been very tough, but it has been a beautiful and an enriching experience,” says Prakash.
The trust first started Kaleidoscope Learning Center to address learning and developmental difficulties. The centre follows the Waldorf curriculum. V-Excel also runs an Academy for Teacher Excellence, which offers a diploma in special education. The course is recognised by Rehabilitation Council of India. “Parents have to deal with a lot of trauma when they have a child with disability. They are in a hurry to find a solution, but it takes some time for them to understand that this is a slow process,” explains Prakash, who set up Disha Parent Forum to motivate parents and enable them to help the child. V-Excel also organised outreach programmes to meet the educational and special needs of people with disabilities and their families in rural areas.
While studying for her doctorate in special education at Rutgers University, USA, Prakash travelled a lot to India for research. Through these visits, she realised there were not many centres for special education in India. This spurred her to start a centre. A television appearance and subsequent clamour to start a trust by like-minded people led to V-Excel. “My initial focus was to train teachers, as it was my forte, but the fiery part of me took over and we have grown into this big organisation,” she says.
After finishing her UG and PG in psychology at RA Podar College Of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai and SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, respectively, she went to Saudi Arabia with her husband and lived there for six years, before moving to USA. She believes that the time she spent in USA, was the turning point in her life. She recalls the difficulties she faced trying to balance her family and studies at Rutgers University. Prakash reveals, “At the time of filling in my application form at the university we had to fill in a ‘statement of purpose’. I wrote a story about a boy with a disability, born in a poor family, who had no idea on how to take him forward and how I planned to go into the depth of his problem and help other such children.”
Over 4,000 children have benefited from V-Excel. This year, the trust has lined up special programmes to celebrate V-Excel’s 10th anniversary. One of them is a special educators forum, where eminent special educators will participate in seminars and interactive sessions. The V-Excel Sibling Forum, a platform for group counselling for siblings of special kids, has also been established.
“My next decade of work will be in smaller towns. My focus is to set up several schools there,” says Prakash. The trust has already started satellite centres in Tirunelveli, Nashik and Ahmedabad. Plans are on to start one in Erode also. She is also collaborating with YAI Network, a USA-based organisation to start a young adult programme in Tirunelveli to provide work and lodging with in-house doctors, the differently-abled adults.
“The importance of standardisation and quality should be kept in mind while starting an organisation for special children. One needs to work from the grass-root level to bring about a change,” she says.
Radha Ganesan | Swabodhini
For Radha Ganesan, the initiation into special education was through her students at a primary school in Chennai. “Back then, I had no idea about special children and their needs. But over the one year that I worked with these children at the school, I developed an understanding and realised that something could be done.” Ganesan and her students have come a long way since 1986. Her first student, Vishwanath Balasubramaniam, 33, is now Ganesan’s secretary at Swabodhini. “I started picking up some skills from an art therapist and psychologist who were employed at the school. It was then that I started a resource centre at the school (Bambino) for children, who needed individual attention. These students would then be put back with their peers, so they got the best of both worlds.”
Parents raised objection to the resource room that was catering to special children, and Ganesan had to close down the resource centre, resign from her job and start teaching two children at her home in 1989. “I started by taking in children with cognitive disability or autism. It grew from two to 25 and I was working two shifts.” Then doctors insisted that Ganesan start a school. “During this time when psychologists and doctors referred their patients to me, I would go back to them with a feedback about the child and created a new system of tracking progress.” With no history of a family member having special abilities and hardly any background in special education to begin with, Ganesan’s passion led her to start Swabodhini (It means ‘to teach oneself’ in Sanskrit). “Our focus at Swabodhini is to teach children to be independent and perform their daily chores themselves. Functional literacy coupled with practical inputs is our approach,” says the 60-year-old. To give shape to this idea better, Ganesan developed Swayam, a neighbourhood grocery store that is run by the students of Swabodhini. “Through this initiative, parents are reassured about their child’s abilities and the community interacts with the children as well. Employability is a major concern for special children. A special child needs to be useful at home,” Ganesan adds.
She aims at bringing dignity to the lives of children with disabilities, and wishes to take this forward with her group-homes project. “This project will hopefully give the answer to the question, ‘After me, what?’ to parents,” she explains. In order to preserve this dignity, Ganesan did not go for a government approval for a long time, as then they would need to put up a board saying, ‘School for the mentally retarded’, which she did not want.
Poonam Natarajan | National Trust
There is little that is not known about Poonam Natarajan, the force behind Vidya Sagar. In 1985, she started the Chennai branch of Spastics Society of India in a small garage with three children, one of whom was her son, Ishwar. Over two decades, she has become the face of holistic development for the differently-abled and is now the chairperson of National Trust, a statutory body under the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment, that was set up for the welfare of persons with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities.
Talking about her initial efforts to demystify disability, Natarajan says, “I surely did not envisage it to become this big. I noticed that most people harp about the weaknesses of their child, so I made it my mission to simplify the problem.” One of her main areas of focus was parent training and counselling, which would in turn empower parents to take care of their children. “It was a big hassle finding special educators back then, so I also sought help from parents of special children,” she explains. Soon she was flooded with parents, children with various disabilities and differently-abled people of all ages. “I did not know when to stop. I wanted to restrict my numbers to 15, but then I decided to cater to the old, young and more importantly, I did not choose the people I took in. All were welcome.” Recounting her days at Vidya Sagar, Natarajan says, “Those were the most fabulous 22 years of my life. I found like-minded people and we grew together.” One of her milestones, she says, is putting special children back into the mainstream. “The Inclusive Cell was a pioneering effort through which we have a team looking at mainstream schools and colleges for admission. We have also been providing mainstream schools extra support and assistive devices for teachers and children.”
At 60, Natarajan dreams on. “I have two dream projects as of now. One is to establish an assisted living programme for adults and the other is to set up a publishing house that will concentrate on producing literature on disability and text for the disabled.”
As chairperson of the National Trust, Natarajan is currently suggesting an alternative to the proposed home-based education model for the disabled, as part of the inclusive education model of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. “This amendment has drawn divided opinions from people. I believe that home-based education is not like home-schooling, which is what the elite have access to. With home-based education, a child is restricted to his/her home. Their world, therefore, becomes too narrow and deprived,” she says