They tread different paths but their goals are the same. On the occasion of International Woman’s Day, Hema Vijay meets three women who work towards inclusion of those with special needs into the social mainstream

They create magic, each in their own inimitable way. A visionary educationist, Jaya Krishnaswamy unleashes the magic of early intervention in pre-empting and offsetting developmental delays and disability in children. The ever-animated Dr. Ambika Kameshwar ropes in the creative power of Indian theatre arts to teach challenged children life skills, vocational training, and find fulfilment and social acceptance. Meanwhile, Jayshree Raveendran brought the dignity of employment to scores of challenged persons.

Different are their roads, but they meet at the point of inclusion of challenged persons into mainstream society, as the ultimate goal. “If there is a barrier-free environment, social or environmental, there will be no despair attached to disability,” says Jaya Krishnaswamy. “If each of us perform our roles and make allowances for our co-actors (in the stage of life), inclusion will be a reality, because there is some kind of ability in everyone,” says Dr. Kameshwar. “If people refrain from noticing crutches, white canes or hearing aids the candidate may have come with, and just consider his qualifications for the job in question, inclusion will be a foregone matter,” remarks Jayshree Raveendran.

In empowering thousands of others, these three amazing women give a new verve to the notion of women’s empowerment.

Giving ability it’s due

The best thing in life has to be independence. At Ability Foundation, challenged persons are helped into that ultimate enabler of independence – jobs. “Just like any other fundamental right, all of us have a right to jobs we are qualified for”, says Jayshree Raveendran, who set up Ability Foundation, after giving up a glorious career that included being lecturer at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and the Indira Gandhi National Open University. She started off humbly with the magazine Success and Ability, an informative and inspiring magazine that helps bridge the divide between persons with and without disability. Now, Ability Foundation’s initiatives like EmployAbility, an annual job fair that brings together employers and qualified persons with disabilities on a non discriminating platform, AbilityFest: India International Disability Film Festival and the CavinKare Ability Awards have become calendar events in the city for all. A member of the drafting committee of the revised bill on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Jayshree shares, “Of course, there is still a long way to go. But things are definitely looking up. Even as of now, 225 corporate groups regularly coordinate with us for sourcing qualified persons with disabilities for jobs, for whom we do sensitization programs on request”.

Jayshree Raveendran is also an inspiration by herself. While a childhood accident may have stolen her hearing, it couldn’t stop her from learning to dance, to play the veena, giving inspiring talks like the 2011 TedX talk, establishing Ability Foundation and in getting society to shed its archaic notions on disability.

The special touch

Retirement brought with it a new beginning for Jaya Krishnaswamy, when she co-founded the country’s first institution devoted to early intervention for children with developmental delays and mental challenges — Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional children (MNC), in 1989. MNC has since then helped thousands of challenged children, with parents heading to MNC from across the country and beyond. MNC has also successfully trained teachers and helped set up many special schools in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. “If the developmental delays are spotted early on, early intervention can yield positive results,” she says. Therapy at MNC is built around Upanayan (meaning leading by hand), a system developed by Jaya in the mid-1980s. Upanayan provides early intervention by continuous evaluation and training of challenged children aged zero to six years, in around 850 specific skills. This approach has been found to be more effective than a general approach. MNC also strongly believes in the participation of parents, who are trained to become their child’s co-therapists at school and a carry-over agent in training the child at home. Right now, she is concentrating on integrating such children into the mainstream and advocating the passing of the revised Persons with Disability Act. “This will bring in a rights-based approach to disability, and a barrier (social/environmental) free environment.” As for societal attitudes towards disability, she says, “While there is awareness now, there is still not sensitivity and acceptance.”

Art of living

What could be a better tool than Indian theatre that encompasses music, dance, drama, art and crafts to teach life skills to special children. But it took a visionary like Ambika Kameshwar to harness arts as a teaching tool. “Theatre is a reflection and microcosm of life, and it addresses every aspect of communication. Since the theatre experience is so fulfilling, the learning of skills through it becomes joyful,” says Ambika, dancer, choreographer, researcher, educationist and founder-director of Ramana Sunritya Aalaya (RASA). The development tool called THD (Theatre arts for Holistic Development) that she designed has been an effective tool in developing motor, cognitive, self-help , language and communication, social and academic skills in thousands of special children over the last few decades. Once trained, some of these children at RASA have been helped into mainstream schools and offices, while others have been placed in suitable vocational jobs in sheltered environments.

“All said and done, we have a tendency to isolate (challenged persons). Even the tag of ‘special’ children is a reflection of this. This is something I want to break. I see ability in every child; there is always something he or she can be good at,” says Ambika. “Inclusion is my life’s mission, and theatre arts facilitates it beautifully.”