Children sometimes don't accept those with special needs… they only conform to a widespread pattern of isolating them.

I love the Guru Ram Rai kids. Guru Ram Rai, the son of the seventh of the ten Sikh Gurus, is considered the founder of Dehradun, the city where I live, and his followers are still based here. Among their many good works are a chain of schools throughout North India which all look almost exactly alike and which specialize in very basic education for lower middle class children. We have three of those schools right in our neighborhood - one is around the corner from Karuna Vihar School (it's for children with disabilities and I am its director) and another is just two blocks down from our College for Vocational Training - for young adults with special needs. You'd think they'd be used to us by now. Not. I usually think of these kids as eager and curious and full of fun - the way they look in the picture above. I am a foreigner who speaks Hindi and they are amazed by me: How are you, Auntie? I am fine, Auntie. What is your name, Auntie? Where are you from, Auntie? And so on. When I take out my camera, chaos ensues as they push each other out of the way to pose, and then jostle into position to get a look at the results.

Fascination

But the day I am thinking of now was a little different. That day I had my daughter Moy Moy along. Moy Moy is twenty years old (though she looks around 12) and she has a severe mental and physical disability. Since she cannot walk, she moves through the neighbourhood in a bright blue special-needs stroller which is all-terrain and equipped with bicycle tires. We had set out for a walk to the cycle-walla to get the tires filled with air just as the Guru Ram Rai schools got out for the day. This has to be seen to be believed, but trust me when I say that those children throng the already crowded and dangerous streets with zero regard for safety or decorum or the slightest worry about making it home in one piece. Moy Moy and I were swept up in the flood and at first I welcomed it - the Guru Ram Rai kids! Hello, Auntie! What is your name, Auntie? Except that on that day no one said a word. Not a single child smiled. Strangely silent, they walked by us in pairs or sets of three, staring in horror at Moy Moy in her buggy. Some smirked, some poked the ones they were with to be sure they had seen: “So big! In a pram!” I heard one child saying to another. As they walked past, almost every child turned back to keep looking. It was very hard. I felt like crying. Moy Moy doesn't speak, so I don't know exactly how it felt to her, down there at waist level, watching all those children staring at her, perhaps wondering what they found so strange, perhaps wishing we hadn't come out at all. We got the tires filled and we made our way slowly back home. I was over the worst of it, but still feeling defeated and low.

On the main road, we saw a family in the distance. A woman, two men, one holding a baby, and two school-age children. The children were animated and excited. Long before we reached them, they were waving and calling out to us: "Hello, Didi! Hello Moy!" I heard the older one explaining to her parents: "It's Moy!"They were Latika Vihar kids. Latika Vihar is our inclusive activity center which children of all abilities and backgrounds belong to. It's a place where games are planned so that every child can join in and have fun, where we don't compete with each other but with ourselves, and where the only rules are “Play Fair. Be Kind. Everyone's Included.” These Latika Vihar kids knew Moy Moy because she is one of them. She goes to Latika Vihar too. To them, she isn't that strange big child still riding around in a buggy. She isn't frightening or peculiar or someone to stay far away from. To them, she is a person with a story, a great stroller and a name. To them, she is Moy Moy. I want to tell this story to people who don't believe in inclusion. I can't get mad at those Guru Ram Rai kids when they stare at my daughter (even though I do). It's not their fault. They've never seen anyone like her because we make sure that they don't. Here in India, we keep kids like Moy Moy out of their schools and playgrounds and then we expect them to grow up to be tolerant and accepting and inclusive. What nonsense. It doesn't work like that. People accept what they understand, what they have experienced. Children who grow up with children who have special needs learn to ask their questions and express their fears right at the beginning, before they have time to harden into lifelong prejudices. Teachers who understand childhood development and who are trained to help kids to accept each other as they are can be invaluable in this process. Parents can reinforce that understanding at home by explaining what seems like another child's strange behavior and offering possible responses. By keeping children with special needs away from their peers, we are guaranteeing their lifelong isolation and we are consigning typical children to a life of monotony and exclusion from all that people with disability bring to the world.

The children of Latika Vihar are a living example of how inclusion can work. The typical ones weren't born knowing that all children aren't exactly like them. They didn't arrive at our centre knowing that some children can't walk or talk or that there are children who flap their hands when they are excited or run around long after everyone else has settled or shout out of turn or often don't get the answer right. They needed to be taught. And the ones with special needs didn't arrive understanding that some of their behaviour wasn't appropriate, that everyone isn't going to make allowances for them the way their families do. They needed to be taught too.

Getting their way

I'm not claiming we are geniuses who anticipated this need and planned our programs around it. Quite the contrary. It was children like Moy Moy, by their presence, who saw to it. Because we have a policy of inclusion, they were there. And very quickly, we realized that children aren't automatic saints. They can be mean, hurtful and intolerant of anyone who looks or acts differently. They can also act out to get attention or to get their own way. So we teach them. That's why they come to us. That's why they go to school, too: to learn to read, write and make connections. To learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.And most important, to learn that for the world to work, it has to work for everyone, starting with the most vulnerable.

The author is the director of the Latika Roy Foundation (www.latikaroy.org), a Resource Centre for people with special needs in Dehradun. She can be contacted at jo@latikaroy.org