It was a personal journey with a special traveller that resulted in Vadodara-based special educator Prema Raghavan moving into the special education sector almost 40 years ago. Her younger brother-in-law nicknamed Boss suffered from Down Syndrome.
Prema’s husband requested her to study intellectual disability as that would come in handy if they had to look after the family member fully in the future.
After completing a Master’s degree from the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai where the course contents included genetics, physiology, anatomy, psychology, physiotherapy, occupational and speech therapy and diagnosis of different conditions that lead to intellectual disability, Prema Raghavan put her training to good use by working as a volunteer with the SPJ Sadhana School located at the Sophia College campus in Mumbai from 1967 to 1994.
Sharing her experiences, Prema Raghavan says it is imperative to link education to life even in the case of special kids. “The curriculum for such children should be planned after taking into account the present development level of the child, the anticipated rate of development and the long-term goal (how much he or she can achieve).”
When it comes to reading and English, Prema Raghavan advocates teaching of ‘social sight vocabulary’ or functional reading. This includes—reading one’s name and address, signboards indicating ‘ladies’, ‘men’, danger, signs and prices in supermarkets, reading the menu in restaurants and following simple recipes from a cook book.
Narrating an instance of essential skill training for special kids, Prema Raghavan says that the Sadhana School once produced an audio-visual titled “Getting lost” with the children with intellectual disabilities themselves acting in it. The message conveyed through the clip was that when children got lost, they could go to the nearest police station or to a traffic policeman and report what happened, make a phone call home with a policeman’s assistance and wait patiently till someone came to pick them up.”
The video proved to be useful. One child with learning disability who lost his way remembered the instructions that he saw on the screen and reached home without any trouble.
Similarly, instead of teaching maths by rote like using tables, the concept of numbers was taught in a practical setting at the Sadhana School. “At first, some children used to order three plates of samosas in one go while some others would ask for two colas while placing an order at the canteen. We explained that it was important to pair a meal with a soft drink,” says Prema Raghavan.
In all, such training and education should not only focus on development of a specific vocational skill but also enable a student to acquire good work habits and interpersonal relationships, necessary to maintain a job.
Prema Raghavan provides another case study where students at the SPJ Sadhana School did voluntary work at the Mother Teresa’s Asha Daan in Mumbai. This home looked after the old, handicapped and the destitute. In the process, they learnt simple decision-making processes like how to react when someone at the home rejected food.
“Their self-esteem also grew as they became conscious that they were able to help others with handicaps. Some of the students actually told us that we are so lucky when compared to those living at Asha Daan.”
Prema Raghavan says it is important to tap the potential of those with disabilities. “They have no negative influences that tend to cloud the judgement and conduct of normal people. Our experience at Asha Daan revealed that children with disabilities could be engaged under proper supervision to perform social service work. In this experiment, we had observed how the emphasis shifted from self-care to caring for another person.”
She adds that that even if parents have provided adequate financial resources to support their child through his or her lifetime, it is still necessary that he or she is encouraged to do voluntary work.
While Prema Raghavan began her journey in special education 50 years ago, a lot has also changed for the better in the intervening period. Earlier, anyone who exhibited any kind of intellectual disability, be it Down Syndrome or autism, two different conditions, they were all bracketed as the same, ‘pagal’ (mad).
Thanks to the concerted efforts of some individuals and organisations, there is greater awareness and sensitivity to the needs and wants of such kids who are now special kids.
Medical practitioners also share their experiences and give insights on critical life skills that are required by special kids in this fast-paced digital world. Chennai-based paediatrician, Dr Priya Chandrashekar, who is known for her work on Down syndrome says it’s important to first make such kids self-sufficient so that they can manage their daily needs first. “After this, focus should be on training so that the differently-abled kids can earn a livelihood.”
(This article is part of One World--Dream A Dream Media Fellowships in Life Skills--2018).