VIRUDHUNAGAR: The year was 1980. Darling Selvabai, who was working in a school for children with hearing disability in Manamadurai, was approached by a man to enroll his child in the school. Selvabai soon found out the child did not have any hearing disability, but had intellectual disability (ID) – a condition characterised by below-average intelligence and a lack of skills necessary for day-to-day living.
The father, however, didn’t know what ID was and Selvabai could not make him understand. He started begging her to somehow enroll the child in the school. The incident left Selvabai with poignant thoughts about the plights of such children and their parents. Now, the physical manifestation of that deliberation cater to the special needs of 120 children aged between 5 and 18, who need help to learn life skills.
The Elwin Centre, located in Sivakasi’s Satchiyapuram and established in 1980 by Selvabai and her husband Reverend Thavaraj David, is now a bridge to the ‘mainstream society’ for children born with ID.
Working under the model of self-sustenance with limited funding, the school’s aim is to translate its financial model to the lives of its children. This was why after an NGO decided to gradually reduce their funding for the school and end it by 2023, the school decided to let the children run the school. As the first step, they bought 50 country chickens and decided to rear them.
“Everything, from feeding the chicken to cleaning the coops, were done by our children. We made `1 lakh in a year from chicken rearing,” said Joseph Dhinakaran (35), headmaster of the school. The money was re-invested.
On similar ventures, Dhinakaran said they have started a bakery where they serve cakes and biscuits baked by the children. The school has also started hosting event management programmes, where the decorations are done by the children. The school also plans to start an outlet to sell their produce, a safe space for the children to learn public interaction as a life skill. “Many of these children have also started working outside in their particular vocations and have started earning money,” said Dhinakaran.
Obstacles they face
Take off the self-sustenance model and a few well-wishers, and the school faces a major crunch in funds. Though the school uses the foster parent system, where they get people to sponsor children, it is still far from meeting their needs.
Dhinakaran highlighted the lack of government schools in the State for children with ID. “All the schools for children with ID are run by NGOs. The government pays around `14,000 for three staff members a school,” he added. According to the school staff, the government fund is grossly inadequate to keep a children to teacher ratio of 8:1 and a children to caretakers ratio of 10:1, which are a must in such schools.The school also lacks disability-friendly toilets. The inefficacy of regular government schools to manage children with ID is also an issue. "They neither have special educators nor the facilities. So, the children turned away", Dhinakaran Said.
When TNIE spoke to Collector J Meghanatha Reddy about the funding issues the school faces, he said assistance could be provided in the construction of disability-friendly toilets under the 'Udhayam' scheme. He added that further assistance could be provided from the flow of government funds.
Whether the funds find them or not, the students of the school have decided one thing. To live in a world they have created and to let it integrate them to the outside world.