NAUNIDHI KAUR takes us to the world of teaching special children.
Shilpa Arora became a teacher to impart knowledge as well as guide and empower youngsters to realise their dreams and ambitions. Today, though, she is inspired by the determination and hard work of her very special students. Arora heads the Savera School in Delhi where children battling with physical and mental disorders, such as Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism, are taught skills that can enable them to handle the rigours of daily life. While the young ones concentrate on regular school work those in the 15 to 17 age group are given vocational training in addition to their studies. And all this is accomplished with the help of 25 trained teachers, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, psychiatrists and a dedicated group of helpers as well as volunteers.
The Savera School is an initiative of Sparsh, a non-governmental organisation, focused on enabling differently-abled children. The vocational training is among the many empowering programmes the school offers. Every day, along with some of Savera’s teachers, volunteers like Amarjeet Kaur mind a group of children, who excitedly pack room fresheners into boxes that are eventually sold. This is one of the many employable activities that they are taught. “The excitement in this room is contagious. At times, some of the children compete with each other to fill the boxes. They tuck the unfolded boxes under their seat so that the next person does not get the chance to have a go at them sooner,” says Amarjeet with a smile.
The beige and purple coloured room freshener boxes are sold under the brand name of Touch of Heaven and are available in three fragrances: Rose, jasmine and sandal. “The packaging process has been divided into small tasks that are repetitive and easy to handle,” says Arora. Some of these tasks include lining up the bottles that need to be filled, placing caps on the bottles, putting stickers on the bottles, putting the bottles in the boxes, and so on. Despite being a repetitive process, the children still tend to forget it and so every day the teachers take them through all the steps before they get down to working.
Young Arun has a growth disorder and is blind in one eye but he is a pro at putting the bottles in their boxes and pasting the right sticker – identifying the fragrance – on the correct boxes. “He is also the most meticulous and hardworking in the group,” says Arora, proudly. Arun comes from an impoverished family; his grandmother takes care of all his needs. But today he is in a position to give something back at home. It’s because Savera’s training programme gives children a chance to earn as they learn. M.P. Singh, president of The Savera School, explains, “Part of the money from the sale of these products goes to the children as an honorarium while some of it is used to sustain the school.” For Arun, this means that he can take some of his hard-earned money home for his grandmother.
As the older children hone their work skills the younger ones do class work and prepare for the time when they too would be ready for vocational training. For them, a typical school day starts with morning assembly followed by academic lessons. Most of the learning is experiential and they get to participate in the various class activities. “Most of them have a limited attention span so we use interactive methods of teaching, including flash cards, painting and other art-based activities,” says Arora.
Of course, teaching these children has its set of challenges because each one is unique and needs gentle care. There are times when the school has to first figure out what exactly the child is afflicted with so that proper help and care can be provided. For instance, Ritu (name changed) was admitted to the school with autism. However, when she did not respond to occupational therapy the teachers deduced that her case was more complicated. Services of the on-call psychiatrist were used and it was discovered that she was suffering from Down Syndrome as well.
Then there are instances when a child has been brought to The Savera School after s/he has already been to several other schools where the teachers, oblivious of their special needs, have treated them as a “problem child”. This was the case with Amarpreet, 15, who had a leaning disability and severe behavioural problems when he came to Savera. His parents had no clue of his disabilities. So when he did not do well at his private school he was shunted to a government school where he became a back-bencher. He was pushed from one class to the next and ended up with a depression. “However, when he came to our school we gauged his requirements and gave him a customised study plan,” elaborates Arora. In the next five years, Amarpreet was successfully involved in the school’s candle-making project. “He worked as an assistant and was really good at marketing and selling the candles,” she adds.
It’s when children like Amarpreet and Arun benefit from the vocational training that teachers like Arora are glad the programme was initiated. Says Singh, “We realised that some of the children had been in the school for a long time and had learnt whatever they could. So the next step naturally was to give them some skill that could make them economically self-reliant.”
Every year, during the festive season beginning with Rakhi, the children make beautiful ‘puja thalis’ (ceremonial trays) that are hand decorated and come with custom-made ‘diyas’ (earthen lamps). Apart from this, they make fancy ‘shagun’ (ceremonial) envelopes that are used for cash gifts during marriages and other festivals, and ‘rangoli’ colours (the colour used to make the traditional decorative folk art seen outside Indian homes). “Some of the children here are really artistic. So we want to tap into their strength and give them the added confidence of making money,” says Amarjeet Kaur, who loves spending time with the children.
There was a time when differently-abled children and their parents faced a bleak future. But initiatives like that of the Savera School are helping to change that reality. “An important message has gone out to the families of these children as well as to the community at large – that special children can be independent,” says Singh.