Seema Lal is a Kochi-based psychologist and the co-founder of Together We Can, an advocacy group of parents and professionals working for children with disabilities.
For the last week, Seema, who is also a researcher, has been on the receiving end of a lot of harassment online. Her ‘crime’ was to question the malpractices carried out in occupational therapy centres for children with disabilities, on a television debate show.
Her tormentors are none other than occupational therapists themselves, who accuse Seema of defaming their "noble profession."
The TV show
On June 12, a leading Malayalam news channel featured a discussion on the kind of treatment meted out to autistic children at therapy centres.
The discussion was part of the channel's talk show called Agam Puram, in which Seema and two others - State Surakha Mission Executive Director Dr Muhammad Asheel, and a parent whose child had passed away while the child was attending a special school, also took part. Videos of several parents revealing the mistreatment their children went through in such centres were played out.
In the discussion, Seema said that there are several therapy centres in Kochi that resort to malpractices while treating the children. Together We Can was formed two years ago, after she received several complaints from parents of children with neurological disorders, about the malpractices at such centres.
"The main issue here is that none of the centres allow the parents to be part of these sessions and they are kept completely in the dark on why certain activities are being done. In one case, there was a child whose arm was fractured during a session; there's no accountability whatsoever. The parents were informed by the special school that their child had fallen ill. Once they rushed to the hospital, they found their child was dead. How did this happen? Nobody knows. This and more is what we discussed during the show," Seema tells TNM.
Seema says that after the discussion was aired, she was targeted online by several occupational therapists.
"I said in the talk show that even high-profile therapy centres in the district employ people who are not competent enough. Apart from blindly following the methodology, some do not even know the reason why a particular activity is being done. I called this out on the show, and pressed on the need for a regulatory body to govern these centres,” Seema says.
“Accidents are frequently reported from these centres - some children break their hands, and in one case, a child even died. But parents don’t come forward to complaint in many of these instances,” Seema explains.
Soon after the show was aired, there was targeted harassment against Seema online.
It began with a random Facebook post on which Seema was tagged. The post criticised her views, and from then on, things got worse. The Kerala Branch of Occupational Therapists Association (KBAIOTA) took to their official Facebook page to counter Seema, an "activist" who questioned the ways of their profession.
Along with the post, the page also published a one-minute excerpt from the show, that Seema alleges is deliberately edited to create a misunderstanding about what she said.
"I said that when I studied Special Education years ago, we didn't have much on Autism in the syllabus except for a one-liner. I wondered whether the syllabus had changed now. But my words were deliberately edited out, and that will only create misunderstandings in people's minds," Seema says.
Soon, apart from outrage from occupational therapists on their own timelines, personal hate messages found their way to her inbox. They saw her views as an attack on the "noble profession" and argued that their centres had requisite registration to run.
Some even reminded her that she was not an occupational therapist and threatened to file defamation suits against her.
Seema maintains that while these occupational therapists have taken her statements as a personal attack, they have also failed to address the larger need for regulation of services.
The larger cause
On May 2, Seema along with two other parents whose children have neurological disorders, approached the Kerala High Court with a writ petition, seeking the formation of a regulatory body and standardisation of procedures at therapy centres.
Seema fears that the edited video of her interview that is now being circulated on social media would harm her case, as Together We Can is trying to get support for the cause.
An excerpt from the petition reads:
"The petitioners submits that due such an unregulated set up with no monitoring there have been several instances of abuse which the parents are unable to report due to lack of evidence as there is neither a cctv camera nor the parent allowed inside during such therapies. It is also submitted that the child with significant communication issues is within closed doors for therapy with a trained adult. It is submitted that extreme cases of negligence and apathy is rampant mainly because the functioning of these centers are neither transparent and they are not accountable or answerable to anyone."
The other side
The occupational therapists though believe that Seema is only trying to defame them.
TNM reached out to Joseph Sunny, President of KBAIOTA, which posted against Seema’s comments on Facebook.
"While we admit that the sector needs to be regulated to prevent malpractices, Seema, through the interview, has defamed all of us. She said that most of the therapy centres in Kochi resort to malpractices," says Joseph, who is a consultant at Prayatna, a therapy centre in Palarivattom.
Joseph, who is also a consultant with Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, says that such accusations coming from someone outside the industry will only hurt the fraternity.
"She is not an occupational therapist herself, and has accused all centres in Kochi of not functioning properly. While we agree that her PIL to regulate the sector is important, we cannot accept her generalisations about all occupational therapists, and that is the stand of our association," Joseph says.
According to him, there are at least 80 members in the association, that includes therapists working with government and private centres.
Seema, however says, that the opposition has come only from occupational therapists, while many others like the Indian Institute of Speech and Hearing, educationalist and parent Poonam Natarajan have supported their cause.