Dhanya (23) and Sekar (30) (names changed on request) were married five years ago and have a four-year-old daughter.

“Shortly after our marriage, Dhanya started behaving indifferently. She became violent at times, forgot that I was her husband and could not identify our daughter,” says Sekar.

“My family thought she was possessed. We took her to two mosques, which is the normal practice to ward off the spirits, but nothing changed. Then we took her to the Government Rajaji Hospital, where Dhanya was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder”, he adds.

Sekar left his job to take care of his wife and daughter. “I was under stress. I got fed up. I wanted to divorce her,” he recalls. But an advertisement changed his life. On April 19, 2011 Sekar saw an ad about a Legal Aid Clinic for people with mental disabilities.

He visited the clinic, which arranged for Dhanya’s treatment at a private charitable trust. M.S. Chellamuthu Trust, which treated Dhanya, also trained her in tailoring as part of their rehabilitation programme. Meanwhile, Sekar received counselling from para legal volunteers. Today, the couple are back together and leading a normal life. “We are happy now. But we are waiting to be employed,” says Sekar, keen to start life afresh.

There are other success stories of rehabilitation. V. Velu, who suffered from a psychiatric ailment, is now employed in a bakery and receives a pension left behind by his parents, thanks to the Legal Aid Clinic.

A tragic story

But the story of Balkeesbeevi is particularly tragic. She was declared unsound of mind eight years ago, after watching her grandson drown in a river. From then on, Balkeesbeevi ran wild on the streets, abusing passers-by and sometimes assaulting them. The Legal Aid Clinic helped her obtain a disability certificate, arranged for free treatment and secured for her a government pension. Her daughter has been entrusted with her guardianship.

The free Legal Aid Clinic for the mentally challenged was inaugurated on April 8, 2010. “The idea was suggested by Justice G.M. Akbar Ali of the Madras High Court. He wanted to ensure a better life for people with mental disabilities”, says Jacintha Martin, secretary of the Madurai District Legal Services Authority.

A report presented at the third anniversary of the Legal Aid Clinic recently, states that over the past three years, 98 persons were given guardianship, 165 got their disability certificates, 140 got free treatment, 53 got their property disputes settled, 59 got their pensions allocated, 9 marital disputes were settled and 41 received counselling.

“Mentally disabled people encounter a lot of problems. In most marital disputes, where the mentally disabled is the wife, we arrange for maintenance from the husband after the divorce. In other cases, the husbands attend the counselling sessions and agree to live with their wives”, says Mrs Martin.

Post-cure counselling is provided to the spouses, free or concessional treatment are arranged at private hospitals, she adds.

The Legal Aid Clinic, functioning at M.S. Chellamuthu Trust in K.K. Nagar, has given a new lease of life to many families. Mentally disabled patients from places as far away as Tirunelveli and beyond visit the clinic for legal remedies.

“My sister Shenbagadevi was the only student who failed in her SSLC exams in her school (in Tirunelveli). She was humiliated by friends, neighbours and even our family. As a result, she became mentally ill,” T. Sivagamisundaram from Tirunelveli recounts.

Today, Shenbagadevi is 58-years-old. She survived her ordeal and her brother has taken over her guardianship. The clinic made this arrangement after Shenbagadevi’s four brothers approached it. “We nearly thought of abandoning her after our parents died,” says Sivagamisundaram with regret.

“The Legal Aid Clinic gave us counselling. We met the advocates for five weeks and decided to give the nominal rent that comes from our father’s property to our sister. That way, she is able to stay in a private home here. One of us is her guardian and we are happy with the arrangement,” he adds.

The Legal Aid Clinic is funded by the Legal Services Authority. “The advocates get Rs.500 per day for their services at the clinic and the para legal volunteers get Rs.250 per day. We are planning to set up more clinics and extend the service further,” according to Mrs Martin.

On Monday, Justice Akbar Ali extended the services of the Legal Aid Clinic to the visually impaired as well.

Employment

“Most of the visually impaired persons are well educated. We focus on helping them get employment. Further, most of the visually impaired students are denied educational loans. We are planning to concentrate more on this aspect”, Mrs Martin says.

While a few mentally disabled persons secure jobs after rehabilitation, there are many who are waiting for employment opportunities, like Dhanya and Sekar.

K. Samidurai, an advocate from the Madras High Court bench here, says Section 47 of the Persons with Disabilities Act provides for employment for those who are disabled.

“If a person becomes differently abled while he is already working, the Act has provisions to provide him with alternative employment. According to the Act, the employment exchanges should propose at least 3 per cent of people with disabilities for employment. This applies to the mentally disabled persons who have been rehabilitated as well”, he told The Hindu.

However, he points out that there is no provision in the law to guarantee employment for the family members of the mentally disabled.

“In most cases, it is the family members of the mentally disabled who undergo hardship. They could be subjected to punishment under law if they abuse the mentally disabled or if they neglect them. But there is no framework in law to support the family of the mentally disabled”, he points out.

Mr Samidurai is firm that provisions to support the families of the mentally disabled should also be created in the legal framework.

Unless such provisions are put in place, there is no complete remedy or alleviation of suffering possible for the parties involved, he concludes.

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