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What makes 25-year-old Ummul Khair special? SAVITHA GAUTAM finds out

THERE'S NO stopping Ummul Khair once she starts talking. She's 25, though she looks 16. A Standard XI student of Lady Andal, she has just returned from school and is all excited about her interview. And for somebody, who began to read the alphabet only when she was 21, she communicates effectively in English and Hindi.

Behind that pleasant deportment is an iron will and fortitude to combat the challenges that life has thrown at her. Yes, Ummul is special, for she has cerebral palsy and a complicated spinal cord problem.

Sitting on her wheelchair, Ummul exudes the kind of self-assurance that many of us lack. Born in Tiruchirapalli in an economically backward family belonging to the minority community, Ummul did not have it easy even as a child. "My mother always told me that I learnt everything late in life," she laughs, and adds on a serious note, "My parents took very good care of me, but my relatives did not take to me kindly. Nobody would talk to me and I was confined to the house all the time. I recall a friend telling my mother, "If I had child like her, I would give her away". Even my brother, who was initially kind, began to feel that his life was a mess because of me. All I could do was cry and feel helpless." The family moved to Bangalore, where her father found work. While her brother went to school, she stayed at home.

All the while, she had a strong urge to study and "speak in English. I wanted to be independent, and do something that would make my parents proud of me."

She continues, "I would watch Hindi serials and write down all the English words the characters spoke. Then I would try to use them when I spoke," she explains.

It was during a trip to Chennai that her dream came true. The 21-year-old decided to get in touch with Poonam Natrajan, director, Vidya Sagar (formerly Spastic Society of India). "I knew Poonam akka as I stayed at Vidya Sagar when I was about five. I wanted to call her and ask for a wheelchair and a walker. As I did not have her phone number, I called the Enquiry services and managed to trace akka." She proudly tells you, "After making that call, I felt like I had achieved something great. I knew I had finally grown up!"

Poonam says, "When she called me I was happy. I always wondered what had happened to her, for even as a child she was bright." Ummul met Poonam and expressed her desire to study. She then took the Standard X examination of the National Open School. "It took me two and a half years to complete the Std X exam. I scored over 60 per cent," she declares and then laughs.

A great beginning it was. Next, Ummul wanted to go to a mainstream school. That too was a cakewalk. Poonam met Vijaya Srinivasan, principal of Lady Andal, who responded positively. What's more, the school authorities specially built a ramp and adapted the toilets for them. And the fee too was slashed for the special children. (Ummul, Kandriya and Karthik are the first special children on wheelchairs to be admitted to Lady Andal.)

What about the other students? Dipti Bhatia, Co-ordinator, Inclusion, says, "The students were prepared before hand and I think they have accepted Ummul and the other in their fold very beautifully."

According to Vijaya Srinivasan, "Ummul and the other kids have settled down very well. In the process, the other children have been sensitised to the needs of these special children. As the children cannot write, some parents have volunteered to act as scribes. I also must add here that the kids' performance in the mid-term teats has been satisfactory."

"I was a little scared the first day. The girls and boys greeted me but from a distance", remembers the die-hard Shah Rukh Khan fan. But today, Ummul is like the others, sending e-mail, chatting on the net with her "best friend" Vincent from Switzerland, enjoying a game of chess or table tennis, or picking up a book in the library, which is in the third floor. "In fact, if the lift is not working, all my friends decide to stay with me." Ummul also paints, writes poetry and sings well. (she breaks into an old Hindi number for you without any inhibition). She's played chess with Vishwanath Anand and enjoys watching movies. She loves psychology, but wants to become a lawyer and "fight for disability rights."

"Most people think that if you can't walk, you can't think as well," says Poonam. Well, Ummul may not be able to walk, but she has a razor sharp mind. What's more, hers is a story that will inspire many a youngster.

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