Differently-abled K.Chinnapillai is the star of her school

This 20-year-old alumni of Aakash Special School run by M.S.Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation in Madurai, has a famous namesake – Chinna Pillai, the face of community banking movement in Tamil Nadu. But she herself is no less a star in her circle of friends and acquaintances. In fact, this daughter of farm labourers with multiple handicap and borderline mental retardation is an achiever having overcome every challenge. Her unstoppable smiles and politeness endear her to one and all. She is one exception of a student who has not been returned to her family, as per the norm.

Points out her mother Adai Kamma: “Whenever she is at home, she is very quiet. But you should see her happy face in the morning when she is up and ready to go to the school.”

For the last six years, Chinnapillai has been taking the school bus from her home in Alagapuri Village, in Madurai East Block to her campus in Alagar Koil. She leaves at 9 a.m. and returns by 5 p.m enjoying every moment spent either in the bus or at the school.

It doesn't matter to her what villagers say about her or when some neighbours even make fun of her. Six years ago it was even worse. She was wrongly accused of theft and beaten by the teacher at the local union school which she attended till class V. Subsequently, she developed a fear for the school and became a recluse choosing to stay at home.

The fact that she couldn't hear or speak was further worsened by her typical behaviour and eating disorder.

Her milestones were delayed – like she was unable to walk till the age of four – and she enjoyed eating sand more than food, says her mother. A community mental health programme of the MSC Trust changed it all in 2004. During screening, her baseline assessment indicated development disorder. She had specific problem with numbers but her other skills like taking care of herself, interest in dance and sports were found to be good.

Initially skeptical, her parents eventually enrolled her in the three year clinical programme which included physiotherapy, speech therapy and honing academic and aesthetic skills. And it was in the classrooms, aided by special educators, that Chinnapillai disallowed her physical disability to limit her interests.

She spent every day winning hearts of other disturbed children with her ever present joy and love of life. She moved with all those around her with much care. She befriended, calmed and inspired so many others around her with her touch, smile and the determination to achieve.

As the school focused and capitalized on her high vocational skills, she returned with medals and trophies in athletics and throw-ball in inter-unit and district level competitions, learnt to play the mrudangam. For someone who couldn't walk as a child, she mastered the steps of bharatanatyam and no function at Aakash School ever goes without Chinnapillai's performance.

“She is a model for our special educators and is the brand ambassador for our special schools,” says a Trust official.

By the time she completed her study programme, she was already voted the ‘most popular student'. Neither did she want to leave the campus nor did the school want to lose her.

Even her parents felt there was no safer place for their daughter. So she started doing the job of a caretaker at the school taking home with pride Rs.200 every month.

“We can not find a better person than her. She may not have the necessary educational qualification but she can beat the professionals with her ability to connect with the other disabled children. Even though she can't speak, she has her amazing way of keeping them entertained and helping them at every step,” adds the official.

Now Chinnapillai enjoys and spends most of her time at the school leading the differently-abled children from the bus to their classrooms, arranging their bags, helping them to eat, cleaning the utensils, playing and dancing with them, making them laugh when they cry. The best thing about her is that she does it all willingly and spontaneously. The way she conducts herself in front of visitors has also earned her appreciation.

The Trust plans to appoint her as special educator from next year. Chinnapillai really can't fathom the significance of her designation. She has chosen and been able to rise above her adversity and that is the most important achievement for her and all those responsible for her progress.

Her mother sums it up: “She has become very civilized. She likes to dress well, has an eye for hygiene. She is a different person today, brave and independent.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)