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The Manipur initiative: Education and freedom at a school for children with disability

Morning assembly at the school. Photo: Agrima Bhasin  

“My attitude is based on how you treat me,” reads a sticker outside the school’s braille room. Inside, Pau, the braille instructor, and his student, Elizabeth, both visually impaired, are spelling numbers. Elizabeth reads aloud, “One Zero - Ten; Two Zero - Sixty!” Pau adjusts the braille card and asks her to try again. At this, teachers next door break into affectionate laughter, aware that Elizabeth, who occasionally teases Pau, would soon give the right answer.

Across the airy corridor, in the physiotherapy room, Tina, a five-year-old with cerebral palsy, is working on her balance. “Give me a high five, Tina,” smiles Angie, the physiotherapist. Tina delights at the clap of their palms, while balancing herself on her knees. It is a weekly session that Tina refuses to miss, even if unwell.

In other classrooms, Tina’s friends are spelling alphabets into a wooden mud-tray or learning nursery rhymes in sign language. Outdoors, a group of children have encircled their favourite teacher, Thang. They hug him, tug at his shirt and giggle naughtily as he jokes with them.

Elizabeth, Tina and their friends are students at The Malsawm Initiative, a school for children with disabilities in the tribal district of Churachandpur, 60 km south of Manipur’s capital city, Imphal. The school brings together children with various categories of disabilities — be it autism, cerebral palsy, Hydrocephalus, Down’s syndrome, hearing, visual and locomotor impairments.

For the current batch of 30 children, aged five to 14, who until a few years ago were leading an overprotected and isolated life at home, the school is a space with a promise of freedom — to learn, think, play, make mistakes and not be judged. It combines education and therapeutic care (physiotherapy, speech therapy and mobility training) such that the children can develop their cognitive, communication, social and daily living skills.

Dondouching and Pauzagin Tonsing founded the school in 2011, after a six-year-long struggle to find a school where their son Malsawm could study. A handsome boy with a sharp ear for music, Malsawm lost his eyesight in 2005 to Optic Nerve Atrophy, a condition that impairs the optic nerve.

“We thought if our son goes to school, he would start learning the basics and his social skills would improve. But he was not learning anything — the special schools in the town had more holidays than working days and the teachers at the private school he attended were clueless but too polite to kick him out,” says Malsawm’s mother, Dondouching, who actually feels sorry for the teachers. “He needed time and thought, but the teachers were only baby-sitting him; they wanted to help but could not.”

Dejected, the couple pulled Malsawm out of school, enrolled themselves for a distance-learning Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) programme and began meeting other parents. “At first the parents were reluctant and ashamed to meet us since talking about disability was a taboo here,” says Pauzagin, founder of the Churachandpur-based Centre for Community Initiative (the parent organisation that set up the school). Pauzagin discovered that most parents and caregivers had been living with a sense of guilt, having internalised the social stigma associated with birthing or raising a child with disability.

This changed with frequent meetings, where parents shed their discomfort and formed a group to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. This was before an educationist known for his love of playgrounds for children, offered the couple a portion of his school’s land for free. In response, the couple and parents of fourteen other children, pooled in their faith and imagination to set up The Malsawm Initiative (which initially was a one-room thatch and bamboo structure, and today, is a yellow and red building amidst a green thicket on a low-lying hill slope).

In the life of the school, the parents or caregivers of children with disabilities have always played a pivotal role. Once, when a landslide blocked roads around the school, parents and teachers formed a human chain and cleared the rubble. Dondouching explains, “Children spend the maximum time with their families. So we expect the caregivers to be fully involved. We also encourage siblings to volunteer at the school so that they can observe and learn from the teachers.”

At the same time, and in the absence of any state support for disability-specific education, rehabilitation or information services, the staff at the school is sensitive to the caregivers’ personal circumstances. This is especially so in a class-disparate situation, where the demands of everyday survival impinge on the time of some caregivers.

“The parents of several children at the school are daily wage earners — small shopkeepers or farmers who labour all day on the jhum (shifting agriculture) hill slopes; others are single parents or aged grandparents. Many of them express a sense of helplessness and frustration and might even feel depressed. This often explains their behaviour, which can be neglectful, overprotective and even abusive towards the child,” explains Dondouching.

To overcome some of the above barriers with empathy and non-judgement, the 14-member staff of the school (including special educators, assistant teachers and UN Volunteers) provides after-school support services like counselling, therapy and home-visits in cases of severe disabilities or single parent households. And during school hours, they love and care for the students like they would for their own child or sibling.

This is evident not only from their classroom interactions but also from the spirited welcome that the teachers (ready with broad smiles, wheelchairs and trendy high-fives) extend to the arriving students each morning and from the hours they pour into creating teaching and learning games and materials that line the bright yellow walls and shelves of the school.

The teachers also maintain a meticulous diary for every child’s monthly development. “He can identify different shapes and colours; can write and vocalise alphabets A-Z and can tie shoe laces on his own,” reads an entry. These diaries fuel the end-of-month meetings where parents and teachers jointly review the child’s learning. At one such meeting, as he waited for his turn to meet the speech therapist, J.J., a parent and a secondary school history teacher, spoke of his five-year-old son, Hratha, who dropped out of regular school. “He would keep running out of school, so they said they could not handle him.” At Malsawm, too, Hratha kept running out for the first three months. But the teachers also ran after him. And here, Hratha has discovered a love for gadgets and YouTube.

“Hratha has a photographic memory and grasps information in seconds. Then he is bored,” explains Dondouching. “He is not intellectually disabled,” he says, explaining that the exclusion of ‘autism’ from the list of disabilities included in the Persons with Disability Act (1995) means that children like Hratha did not get a disability certificate or were categorised by the district authorities as ‘mentally retarded’ or learning disabled. This has since been changed in April 2016, but is yet to be implemented.

The couple believes that advocacy is critical in the face of little to no awareness and empathy among district officials, church leaders and the larger community, including their own friends and relatives. “Most people just feel pity; they say “so sorry” and then feel grateful for being able-bodied, says Dondouching.

The teachers want Churachandpur to become the first disabled-friendly district in the Northeast. For this, the able-bodied must be willing to connect as equals. Pauzagin says with a grin, “We even organised a Gangnam-style dance competition to raise awareness,” and adds, shrugging, “Otherwise no one would have come.”

Agrima Bhasin is an independent social policy researcher.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 2:34:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/The-Manipur-initiative-Education-and-freedom-at-a-school-for-children-with-disability/article16443835.ece

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