The entrance to the garden is lined with chequered tiles guiding them to proceed straight; and the floor laid with soft pebbles is to tell them to change direction. And dotting the space are boards in Braille, some describing the botanical properties of the plant and others with information to help children navigate their way in the garden.
After finishing the first round alongside the plants, the three lines of students aged between 6 and 14, all with visual disability, seem a little restless. But as they begin the second round, running their fingers through the leaves and plucking and tasting them as directed, they get more involved. “Idhu vethillai,” concludes Jennifer after chewing on a leaf even as she moves to the next plant all the while holding her friend's hand tightly.
Jennifer is one of the children enrolled at the day care centres of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan who were brought to the ‘Touch and Smell Garden' at M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation on Thursday.
“There are many children with disability who cannot be directly admitted to Chennai Schools. We give them therapy-based education and later mainstream them,” says A. Samadhanam, assistant project officer, SSA.
Nearly 200 children are enrolled in the day care centres. Many of them have multiple disability, including neurological disorders, cerebral palsy, visual disability and physical disability.
In order to ensure that the children come to the day care centre regularly, SSA arranges transport and food too.
“Early intervention is the key to mainstreaming,” says Ms. Samadhanam.
“Such outings and tours to know nature will not only help them learn something new, but also help them imbibe social skills,” she adds. The trip was also one of the rare occasions when these children get to go out as many of them have high levels of disability.
“In case of fully blind children, many parents find it difficult to take them out. We cannot afford to lose work,” says V. Pankaja, a domestic worker who had accompanied her child to the park.
The garden is one of the few places in the city that enable children with visual disability to experience and learn about nature. “Most children are good at following the directions and such exercises help them learn in a very activity-based way and cultivate an interest,” says N. Parasuraman, coordinator (Youth and Sustainable Development), MSSRF.
Recreation is rarely a priority for special schools, say experts. Chennai Schools are supposed to have a music room to help mainstream disabled students. But children are often not permitted to regularly use them, says T. Geetha, a teacher in one such school in T. Nagar.
“There may be five or seven blind children in a class; letting all the sixty students in the class access the instruments can often result in breakage,” she adds. And techniques and devices such as rolling and not throwing the ball in cricket, use of sound balls, lowered nets and props with pricks are also rarely used or practised in schools, says C. R. Sudhakar, special educator.
Besides more programmes such as this, says T.N. Venkatesh, Joint Commissioner (Education) of Chennai, there is a tie-up in progress with organisations, including Rasa Special School that integrates the study of music and dance with the curriculum. “The aim is to ensure they get the kind of education they are most receptive to.” And gardens indeed make them happy for the question on every child's lips as they left MSSRF, was “When are we coming here again, next week?”