Review of K. Srilata’s This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story: The invisible people

For ages, neurodivergent people have been largely ignored and marginalised. This is the story of how they go about their fractured lives with patience

January 20, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 06:04 pm IST

The strength of the book lies in the fact that it presents a solution every time it mentions a problem.

The strength of the book lies in the fact that it presents a solution every time it mentions a problem. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

When the author K. Srilata’s daughter, who had some learning difficulties, was rejected by a school, as it had no place for ‘this kind of child’, she decided to homeschool her. Any other parent, who was unaware of the complexities of this condition, may have reprimanded the child instead. But, in standing by her daughter, the author had mindfully turned the word ‘kind’ from being an ill-placed noun into the much-needed adjective that it is, thereby paving the path for positive parenting.

As the author contemplated turning their struggles into a book, she realised that there were several others like them. Such families were quietly building their lives and a siloed support ecosystem, even as a majority of the population continued to be unconcerned and preoccupied with worldly events. This generic apathy forced the author to compile the lived experiences of these invisible people, along with her own, into a one-of-its-kind ‘disability’ story in This Kind of Child.

Unheard voices

The book follows a well-thought-out structure. It is divided into seven sections or mini books, with each offering the perspectives of a particular group — neurodiverse young adults and grown-ups, persons with vision disability, parents and caregivers, siblings and children, and special educators and therapists. Rather than an impersonal third-person narrative, the author wisely chooses to keep the voices of these varied protagonists intact, letting them tell their stories their way through essays, interviews, and short fiction.

A toddler with a prosthetic foot in her playroom.

A toddler with a prosthetic foot in her playroom. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Concepts such as the lopsided gender balance predominant in caregiving, the heartless othering of persons with ‘disabilities’, the role of society in turning impairment into a ‘disability’, and the urgent need to advocate for disability rights will make the reader think deeply about these issues. And the stories about how faith is the ship that carries a broken home’s spirit ashore, the constant innovation of an educator to only provide the best to her students, and the hope of an ageing brother that his caregiving responsibilities don’t get passed on as legacy to his children will move the reader enough to care.

Language of learning

Advocacy for appropriate use of language when writing about neurodiversity has been gaining momentum in recent times. The book takes this conversation ahead by dwelling upon the differences between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’, and how words such as ‘atypical’ and ‘abnormal’ tend to focus “on everything that is wrong with the person”.

Not just language usage, but the book also presents an in-depth view of the unfair schooling system in the country. In his essay, the author’s son, Aniruddha Kambhampati, rightfully points out that it is, in fact, “the fundamental duty of any school to teach its students about disability, mental health and discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, race and class.” Yet, any child who is slightly different is relegated to the sidelines. It is shocking, but not surprising, to note the direct and indirect ways in which some of the protagonists — with specific learning issues, on the autism spectrum, affected by Down’s Syndrome, or who are visually impaired — have been humiliated or rejected by the system.

Children with Down’s syndrome are in many ways sidelined by society.

Children with Down’s syndrome are in many ways sidelined by society. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The special educators’ section is particularly interesting, as it draws attention to how the teaching methods in most schools are dated and cater primarily to high-scoring students. But the strength of the book lies in the fact that it presents a solution every time it mentions a problem. And so, some of the protagonists are educators who think innovatively, customise the curriculum and learning materials, and focus on fine arts and communication skills, thus drastically improving the confidence level and grasping speed of children with different abilities.

Ways of seeing

An entire section has been dedicated to people with vision issues, because the book’s aim is, at one level, to ask the reader an astute question: who is visually impaired — those who actually have sight problems or those with good vision but who turn a blind eye to the problems of others?

Visually impaired children also need a lot of emotional support.

Visually impaired children also need a lot of emotional support. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Further, the book sets out to alter the gaze of the self-important philanthropist or do-gooder from sympathy and charity to empathy and acceptance. Some of the stories deftly illustrate that neurodivergent persons can lead independent lives and are capable of carving out for themselves a distinct identity — as artists, musicians, mountaineers, teachers, rights advocates, psychologists, and so forth.

To those who see their life reflected in that of the protagonists, the book offers solace by highlighting that there is a competent, inter-dependent community out there, ready to go the extra mile, to support and bring about change. And to those who belong to the larger nonchalant population, the book has one basic message: be kind.

This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story; K. Srilata, Westland Books, ₹599.

The reviewer is a children’s book author, graphic novelist, and editor based in Mumbai.

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