‘Prayatna’ is a very special school for special children. Prayatna, took birth in October 1997, and is the effort of three dedicated women, Nafisa Khambata, Radiya Gohil and Mridula Das, to provide training, education and a caring environment to individuals with developmental disabilities. Theirs is an all–out effort to show that “Those with mental retardation can be educated and trained. Given the right intervention, these individuals are able to define, develop and utilize their own assets and become complete human beings”. The school itself is unique in more ways than one. Travel down North Main Koregaon Road, almost upto Mundhwa and turn right into the village of Ghorpadi. There, amidst fields which abound with flowers, is Susie Villa, a bungalow which the trio have rented. The informal lay–out inside resembles a home rather than an institution and goes a long way in creating the perfect comfortable atmosphere, because Prayatna’s aim is to integrate the individuals in a home situation, teaching them basic academic skills along with functional skills to enable them to mingle socially. Four rooms cater to the four different levels of training. Bright chairs are grouped around a large table in each room and there is a kitchen for them to practice survival culinary skills. Prayatna, which started with only 6 children, was originally slated to teach only pre–vocational skills to the age group of 14 upwards. But with Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra, an orphanage, requesting them to take on some of their mentally challenged children, the school expanded its flexible teaching, to bring them into their warm embrace. Now with almost 30 children they have divided their programme into 4 levels. The teaching methods are extremely adaptable because as they state, “Each child is different and our aim is to develop the capabilities of each person”.
- The first is the Special Unit. These are the younger children, between 3–10 years, who were not able to do anything. Coming from the BSSK, they had severe behavioral problems, had no speech and were not even toilet–trained. Special chairs had to be made for them till they were toilet trained. These children, used only to a soft diet of dal–rice, had to be introduced to chapatti–bhaji and taught to chew for the first time. Slowly they have even learnt to pick up pieces of chapatti on their own.
- Next came the communication area speech, and then introduction to alphabets and numbers. To increase their creativity they did some craft–work in the afternoons, mostly tearing colored paper and pasting them. Two children from this group are now ready to go into the next level which is
- The Pre–Vocational Group. Here they do some basic academic work – alphabets and numbers from 1–10 and then progress to learning their names, addresses and telephone numbers. If the child is adept enough to write, he is encouraged, otherwise even verbal learning is considered sufficient. At no time is a child compelled to follow a single norm. Those who are non–verbal are taught by the Bliss Symbols (on a board) or the Rhebus Board (pictorial) or by gestures.
- This group soon progresses to higher level pre–vocational which includes more skills like awareness of surroundings and daily survival cooking. It begins first with recognition of the various vegetables, fruits and grains. They are then encouraged to wash and peel. Depending upon their motor skills, they can now cut and chop vegetables, light a gas stove and do some cooking. They usually work in pairs, which are made up in such a way that they can combine their skills and lack of a certain function in one is made up by the partner.
- The next group is the Vocational Unit. Here they learn block–printing, screen–printing, making cards and gift–wrapping paper, tie and dye and even light snacks. All these items are sold on the Open Day which is held every year at their premises.
Nilesh Khatri and Muffazal have extremely expert at handling the screen press and turn out dozens of beautiful cards with utmost efficiency. The idea is to give them a vocation and at the same time give vent to their creative talents.
How they can be integrated
On this particular day, the group is getting to make poha (a snack made out of pressed rice). They sit round their table, picking coriander leaves (very good for honing finer motor skills), peeling onions and slicing them. They now move to the kitchen.
While one pair takes down the jar of poha, measures it and washes it, another pair lights the stove, puts the pan on it. Still another pair now selects the oil can and pours it out, adding the seasoning. Blossom, who loves cooking, does the actual mechanical work of stirring but as she has less initiative, she needs to be goaded on by her partner Rashida who is mentally alert enough to recognize the various stages of cooking but lacks motor co–ordination to do the actual work herself. Well the poha is ready at last and Naitik and Abhishek come to serve it, the former holding the tray because of his skill and the latter handing it out because he has the most charming smile. Another pair is making tea in the meantime.
At home, the parents are encouraged to involve the children in the day to day odd jobs. “Otherwise they will feel useless”, emphasizes Radiya. “Send them out to the nearby shops to fetch the one–odd requirements. If they are unable to bring back the right change, help them along by giving them a small calculator. Let them lay the table, serve the food, help to clear up after meals. They can fold all the clothes and stack them neatly. They can also knead the dough, make some easy snacks like sandwiches. They may be slow but don’t give up on them. Start them off early. If you need vegetables cut for the morning meal, ask them to do it the prior night. They need to be encouraged to get out of themselves and look after the needs of others too.
Teach them to fetch a glass of water for the parent when he/she comes back from work. Ask him about how his day has gone. Many parents tend to think ‘After all, what great thing will a mentally retarded child have done today’. Resist that attitude and take an interest in his affairs, he will be sure to reciprocate and take greater interest in your work’.
“Don’t consider the child as a burden and feel ashamed to take him/her out. If you do this the feeling will automatically rub off on the sibling and he will have the same attitude later on an will be unable to extend a caring hand. Take your child out into society. You have to break the ice somewhere”, they urge.
One such wonderful example is Abhishek, whose outgoing, friendly nature and cheerful smiling face could well be a fall–out of his wise parents’ attitude of taking him out. Then there is Muffazal who also helps out with his father’s business in the evenings by attending to customers or doing simple accounts.
“Negative public attitudes to disability are often the biggest handicap. Let us join hands to overcome this”, is their fervent appeal. More than basic academics, the child is encouraged to pay more attention to his surroundings. As Nafisa stresses, “The school is not just a place to pick up learning, but also to increase their social interaction. We emphasise the importance of grooming and appearance, which includes oral hygiene, foot and nail care. Sharing is an important aspect of life that we teach and if they have brought something special in their lunchbox, they are taught to share it with others. They soon learn that this is the way to build friendships”.
Some of the causes of mental retardation (at Prayatna)
Dinyar Aibara, 15, was slow in all his milestones. His parents even put him in Dastur School for a year where teachers recognized him as a slow learner. Repeated trips to doctors only elicited the response, “He will pick up soon”. It was only at age four, that his retardation was diagnosed as the effect of his mother’s bleeding during the third month of pregnancy, followed by a vacuum delivery which caused a bump on Dinyar’ head.
For Sudha Singh, 12,with severe dyslexia, the cause was put down to low birth weight as she was born after only 6 months of pregnancy. While these 2 are some of the causes, other causes may be
- Down’s Syndrome this may range from mild to severe and some of the recognizable signs are a thick tongue, stubby fingers and slanting features (Mongoloid).
- When the mother has had an illness like typhoid or Rubella during pregnancy or taken heavy medication for it.
- Sometimes a child may be born normal but meningitis, jaundice, prolonged high fever can lead to damage of brain cells.
- Thyroid deficiency or epilepsy.
How you can help
The expenses involved in starting this center, has been phenomenal. The trio relate the many setbacks they have faced and when they have been especially short of funds it seems the hands of the Almighty have intervened help has arrived from the most unexpected places whether friends from as far as Ireland or in India too. But those who wish to help out, can:
- Contribute towards monthly expenses.
- Sponsor one of the trainees ( especially the ones from the orphanage).
- Contribute towards long term expenses (build a corpus for land, building, vehicle).
- Donate in kind such as materials, equipments, etc. (The Inner Wheel of Riverside Pune has donated a flour mill which is being operated by the trainees on a commercial basis).
- Work as a volunteer sharing your gifts and skills.
- Buy the items which the children make such as cards, wrapping paper, letter–pads, envelopes, bandhni dupattas, napkins, tablecloths, scarves, files etc. Larger corporate orders can also be placed.
Their future plans are to have Community based Rehabilitation, and a Residential Care Center.
Their contact numbers are
Prayatna: +91 20 26817429
Nafisa Khambata: +91 20 26342396
Radiya Gohil: +91 20 26131069
Mridula Das: +91 20 26123107
They have created a tiny spark let us help to create light !