Deepa Mohanraj and Annapoorna Jayaram began the Sri Prashanthi Academy to help special children find their place in the world

In the winter of 2002, a beautiful girl named Richee was born to Deepa Mohanraj. Over time though, Deepa’s motherly instincts told her something wasn’t right with Richee. She was later diagnosed with craniosynostosis, a condition that prevented her brain from growing. For three months, Deepa experienced suicidal depression. But life turned around the day Richee lay on the operation table. While family cried outside, Deepa was moved to thank God that there was hope for her child. Back home, as Richee slept recovering from surgery, Deepa felt her say, “I have come into your life so that you will know true happiness.” Through Sri Prashanthi Academy (SPA) — Deepa and her partner Annapoorna Jayaram’s school for over 90 intellectually challenged children — that prophecy has come true.

In early 2005, Annapoorna moved into Coimbatore with her 20-year-old daughter Archana, who has Down’s Syndrome. With degrees and diplomas in special education, and seven years of experience running a special school in Kuwait, Annapoorna hoped to begin one in Coimbatore.

On January 26, 2006 Deepa met Annapoorna, found a kindred soul, and together, they began SPA in June with their daughters, an autistic boy, a helper and an occupational therapist. “Word soon spread, more children joined us and in September, we moved into my father-in-law’s house in NGGO Colony,” says Deepa

Right medium of communication

SPA grew according to the needs of the children admitted. “Intellectually challenged children can be mainstreamed if intervention is done early enough. There’s a misconception that if children cannot write or speak, they cannot grow intellectually. All you need is to find the right mode of communication for each child,” says Annapoorna who handles SPA’s curriculum.

Children between one and three, therefore, are trained through SPA’s early intervention program which focuses on pre-reading skills, basic writing, and activities of daily living such as toileting, clothing themselves and eating.

Many of SPA’s children are also non-verbal and so the curriculum is strongly visual. Classrooms, for instance, are covered with picture cards that indicate the day’s schedule and its lessons. Each class of 10 or 12 has one special educator who leads the class, with two assistants and a helper who aid each child individually. There are also occupational therapists, naturopathy doctors, physical education instructors and speech pathologists that work closely with the children to ease them out of their specific difficulties.

“When children join us, we assess their current abilities and group them with those who are similarly skilled and are around the same age group. If a 10-year-old boy with the capabilities of a three-year-old is grouped with the toddlers, his self-esteem will drop,” explains Annapoorna. Hence SPA has three academic classes, graded by age, that teach the equivalent of the CBSE Board’s Class I to III. Each class also has children with different intellectual challenges, for each child’s ability makes up for other’s weaknesses. For example, Krithika who has attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder jumps around the class singing and clapping her hands, but her infectious energy draws in autistic, and hence more introverted, Manav, who soon sings her song.

Vocational skills

While scholastic milestones are important, Annapoorna believes that for older children with late intervention the focus must be on functional academics. “An education that doesn’t make them independent is no education,” she says. Thus began the vocational and pre-vocational batches for those above 13 years.

Here students learn to shop, handle money, cook, bake, weave mats, thread garlands and garden. For lunch this afternoon there’s the yummiest tomato rice and chutney with onions from the school’s organic garden. “By this age, children are too old for occupational therapy to fix their fine and gross motor skills but such activities do it for them instead, besides providing them with possible livelihood options,” says Deepa.

Over the next few years, SPA hopes to equip students with production skills so that they can be self-employed, as well as tie up with companies that would employ them.

Parental acceptance

The biggest challenge to special education however, is not the child’s difficulties but parental acceptance says Deepa, for if the parent gives in and gives up, the child will too. “I had to stop blaming myself and asking ‘why-me’ before I could look forward and believe that there is a positive future for Archana,” says Annapoorna. Parents with such faith have brought SPA through the last seven years. There is now a branch in Tirupur for 30 children, and they plan to start a bigger campus named Kaumaram Prashanthi Academy at Chinnavedampatti later this year.

Says Deepa, “Richee taught me how to live every moment of my life well. She took me from just ‘being’ into well-being. I want every parent of a special child to know just how blessed they can be and that they are chosen for a purpose.”