When Haran’s father takes him to the Park for Children with Special Needs in Madurai, the 20-year-old runs around, happily mingles with other young people and plays on the equipment cheerfully. Nobody stares or stops him. When we return home, says his father M Pandiaraj, he remains calm for the next two or three days because he dissipates so much energy in that half a day of play. “When we miss a trip to the park he is restless,” he adds.
Tamil Nadu’s first-ever exclusive park for children with special needs opened in the temple town in July 2017, and Haran, with hyperactive autism couldn’t have got luckier. He had just graduated from special school and his parents were beginning to wonder where to take him for safe outings. “We have been one of the regular users of the park for the last 18 months,” says Pandiaraj, a project manager with an oil company.
“Humiliation and embarrassment come easily to parents with children like ours. We struggle to find places that cater to and understand families with special-needs individuals. This park allows them uninhibited fun,” says a college professor, wishing to remain anonymous. He brings his 11-year-old son, with ADHD, thrice a week, and feels there is a perceptible difference in the child’s behaviour. “After each visit, we as parents, are less stressed-out as he returns exhausted and remains calm. He also develops the motor skills he requires,” he adds.
Like them, many parents have been invited with their children to the park tomorrow (December 4) for a special function as part of celebrations for World Disability Day. The Madurai Group Living Foundation (MGLF), which teamed up with the Madurai Corporation, to create this happy space, has planned a treat for the children, that will include simple competitions, entertainment and lunch. “We will also honour 15 special schools that regularly send their students during the day to the park,” says MGLF founder A Chandrasekaran.
A retired bank manager, it was his brainchild to convert the 44 cents of wasteland, opposite the Lotus Tank, into a colourful playground. To take on this challenge, Chandrasekaran — father to 23-year-old Ivan, diagnosed with autism at the age of seven — mortgaged his wife’s jewellery, took a bank loan and asked friends for donations, raising ₹15 lakhs. “It is a constant challenge for parents raising a child with autism, and I wanted to take Ivan away from the anxiety we faced at home, particularly after my wife’s death last year,” he says.
Of the 150 MGLF members, 15 formed a core group to execute the project. The Corporation helped with cleaning the area, laying out the floor and pathways, refurbishing the compound wall, installing hand railings and providing water and power supply. MGLF got the play equipment, developed a sensory garden, set up a small office and a hall for indoor games in a ship container. TVS Srichakra built two disabled-friendly toilets. A lady in the neighbourhood donated five stone benches for people to sit under the shade of the trees. Aravind Eye Hospital has contributed a bucket swing for toddlers and a family circular swing.
Other than the regular slides, swings, seesaws and merry-go-round, care has been taken to install a wheelchair swing, slides with raised flanks and a wheelchair-accommodating rotator with a detachable ramp. Detailed planning has gone into the sensory garden, with a tactile and hearing sensory pathway for children to walk over the chipped-wood board and a bed of pebbles, touch the herbal plants, smell the fragrant flowers and hear the sound of water from an artificially-created mini water fall.
“People with autism can be hypersensitive to sound, light, and movement, and become overwhelmed by noisy, cluttered or crowded spaces. This place gives a sense of calm, where children can come alive,” says Chandrasekaran.
The park was launched exclusively for special children. But MGLF encourages integration and mingling by inviting small batches of children from regular and special schools on appointed days. Special children from Tiruchirappalli, Tirunelveli, Dindigul, and Sivakasi also come here to picnic. The MGLF members take turns daily to be in the park that opens from 10 am to 6 pm. After the celebrations tomorrow, the park will be open to all children from 4 pm to 6 pm daily.
To encourage more participation, MGLF is also planning musical or cultural programmes, health check-up camps and parents’ meetings.
Kalam’s Pasumai Kudil, Goripalayam
“Play grounds are where children learn to explore, build friendships and develop social skills,” says Dr S Prassana, a paediatrician, who along with members of the NGO Palakkarangal got a piece of Corporation land transformed into a neat and colourful play spot for special children. The land, which had been littered with garbage and was partially encroached upon, was vacated and cleaned this July. NMR College students painted the walls with colourful drawings and Madurai City Round Table 99 installed a seesaw, swing and a stone bench.
Park For Children With All Abilities, Beach Road
Located in a breathtaking setting overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the park opens out from a bridge at the entrance that gradually ramps up from the ground level into a climbing structure. There are EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer) play courts, a tyre climbing wall, a crawling tunnel and a specially-designed merry-go-round. Bucket swings are accessible for children with low upper-body strength. Elevated pathways with interlocking paver blocks of 300 square metres, and a multi-purpose lawn are some of the other features. A special equipment called the Garden Sound Play enables children to enjoy an auditory game of music and sound, where they stand on opposite ends of a long pipe and communicate with each other. The space is wheelchair-accessible, and is adequately fenced off.
National Park for People with Special Needs, Nalgonda Cross Road
With an amphitheatre, wheelchair/walking track and gait-training equipment, therapies prescribed for those with disabilities, such as behaviour modification, are played out in the park. In order to cultivate empathy and understanding, “We have created an inclusive play area where regular children and those with special needs can play and interact with each other,” says physiotherapist Sumeria Sahira Fatima, who works at Ayesha Educational Society, an NGO run by Ayesha Rubina. They have a centre at the park, and the latter is run in tandem with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). People with disabilities often mingle with walkers and joggers on the wheelchair track. The recently-held Special Olympics Bharat at Patiala in Punjab has brought cheer to the centre. Two of their students, Sai Teja and Dinesh Reddy, who have a mild and moderate intellectual disability, respectively, with their partners Syed Nizamuddin and Mirza Sohail Baig from Greens Special School, represented Telangana and won a bronze and gold medal playing floorball and floor hockey.
While the city doesn’t have a functional park yet, Kilikili — a disability rights organisation — along with Chennai Corporation, has proposed a park for children with special needs. The park will be located beside the State Resource Centre for Inclusive Education of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Santhome. “There’ll be wheelchair access to all areas, including toilets, Braille signage and tactile markers for the visually impaired, and a court for wheelchair basketball,” says Kavita Krishnamoorthy of Kilikili. She hopes the bright designs will be a hit with the children from the Resource Centre, and adds that the park will be open to all.
With inputs from Akshaya Ramesh