In its 50th year, Amrit Centre for Special Needs hopes to bring more children into its fold and integrate them into the mainstream. Pankaja Srinivasan reports

In 1963, Amritham Varadaraj, Alda Fowler, Pankachachi Subbaiyan, Shashi Ghulati and S.R. Ponnusamy Chettiar got together to set up a centre in Coimbatore to help and rehabilitate children with special needs. The institute was set up on land gifted by the then Municipality on Mettupalayam Road. A mobile van would go to villages to spread awareness about the centre. It would also screen children for disabilities and fit them out with custom-made callipers.

This was the Society for the Aid of Handicapped Children. Today, it is called Amrit Centre for Special Needs. It is celebrating Swarna Utsav or its Golden Jubilee year. Says Dr. T. Balaji, president, Amrit: “The well-to-do can afford to take their children anywhere in the world for treatment. It is the economically deprived families that face an enormous strain. A question that haunts them is, ‘After us, who will look after these children?’” This is where Amrit hopes to make a difference. It focusses on a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to the issue of special needs. “We want more people to know about it,” he says.

Amrit has an early intervention unit that works with parents of special children from birth till they reach five years of age. Trained educators help parents take care of their children. Physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and hearing therapists, neurologists and yoga trainers also work with them. Says Balaji, “Sometimes, just teaching these children how to brush their teeth or eat by themselves makes a quantum difference to the family. As they grow older, the focus shifts to academics and development of social skills. The idea is to make the children as independent as possible. They will ultimately and hopefully move into a vocational centre where they are trained to become contributing members of society.”

Future plans

Now, there are plans to set up a facility to train educators to work with mentally challenged children. Amrit has applied to the Rehabilitation Council of India for that. In the meanwhile, Vidyasagar, a voluntary organisation in Chennai that works with people with special needs, is a mentor. Its members visit Amrit regularly, assess the children and teachers individually and set targets for them. During following visits, they audit the situation to see how much they have improved.

GKNM hospital looks after the paediatric and other medical needs of the children at Amrit. Amrit has also reached out to special educators elsewhere to help its children. Recently, a group from the U.S. came to Amrit to teach yoga techniques and meditation to the students, parents and teachers.

The city has risen to the occasion in supporting Amrit, says Balaji. Leading corporate houses have been a pillar of support as have thousands of others who have contributed books, uniforms, stationery and food to the institution. He makes special mention of students from colleges around the city. Those doing Masters in Social Work use Amrit as a resource centre. Volunteers from MNCs work here. Students of ELGI MHSS as well as Mani HSS will conduct NSS camps at Amrit.

A great source of joy to the special educators of Amrit is to see their children successfully move into the mainstream. Balaji speaks of a young boy who looked after a popcorn booth attached to a cafeteria. Initially, someone would have to stay with him all the time. But slowly, he moved on to helping the cafeteria in other things and finally left because he got a better job elsewhere. “That is exactly what Amrit wants. To get our children into the mainstream,” smiles Balaji.

This Friday at Brookfields, Amrit organises an event with music and dance. Special people from Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore, Chikmagalur and Coimbatore will perform. “Please join us and help us help our special children. More importantly, please use the many facilities that we have in Amrit,” says Balaji. “And spread awareness about the facilities we have. It is sad to see them being underutilised.”

( The Hindu is the media partner for Swarna Utsav)

The well-to-do can afford to take their children anywhere in the world for treatment. It is the economically deprived families that face an enormous strain.