India's first varsity for the differently-abled, NISH

  • Ramesh Babu, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 06, 2015 17:36 IST

As union finance minister Arun Jaitley presented his budget in parliament, a young crowd cheered him all the way. But their ruckus never reached the world outside the campus. But they had enough reasons to cheer - their school, the National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH), situated on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, has been elevated as the country's first university for disability studies and rehabilitation sciences.

G Vijayaraghavan, a technocrat who founded a small school 18 years ago, after his twin daughters were born with hearing and speech impairments, is set to scale new heights. Glued to the TV on action-packed budget day, he couldn't control his tears. His baby had come a long way. And for a change, the television stations in Kerala were not beaming his reactions to the budget but the glad news about NISH.

Indeed, NISH has showed how to overcome challenges. "About three per cent of the population in the country is differently abled. I always say that these people don't need your sympathy. They want their due - better opportunities," says Vijayaraghavan, who pioneered the information technology revolution in Kerala and was the first CEO of the IT park in Thiruvananthapuram. Interestingly, the honour has come to the proud father a year after his twin daughters (Lakshmy and Parvathy graduated in fine arts from NISH) married grooms with the same challenges.

Vijayaraghavan's indomitable spirit has provided succour to many. "My husband and I were working in Dubai. We left our jobs and returned home after our daughter was born with hearing disabilities," says C Anu, the mother of preschooler Andrea (5). The child, who was enrolled in NISH four years ago, is now ready to join a mainstream school.

"Early intervention is critical in shaping a disabled child's life. After leaving my job, I had to stay in a rented house near the school for three years to help my six-year-old son," says another mother as she wipes her tears. For many parents, the economic burden of having a child with disabilities often outweighs the social stigma and the emotional stress. "I thought of committing suicide when my daughter was born mute. Thanks to NISH, we now lead a normal life," says a mother of two, who prefers not to reveal her name. Besides children, NISH offers training modules for parents on how to deal with the situation.

Students at National Institute of Speech and Hearing. (Photo: Vivek Nair/HT)

The institution's methods and success has meant that parents from places as far away as Punjab and the Andamans are now sending their children here. "As we don't have a facility here, I often had to take my little daughters to Mysore for treatment. This was a big problem and really motivated me to think of an institution in my city," says Vijayaraghavan explaining how his school started on rented premises in 1997 with seven students. "Once my dream blossomed, successive governments helped it to stand on its own." Though the state government asked him to take over the school's administration, he chose to opt for experts in the area.

The institution which functions under the state social welfare ministry also attracted many good Samaritans who loosened their purse strings. Soon after NISH was established, a batch of teachers was sent for training at the best institutes across the world. A UK-trained teacher Anu Kurian joined them on an honorary basis to take care of the preschool section. Former chief minister EK Nayanar also took a keen interest as did former defence minister AK Antony, who helped to set up a new building block.

Now, NISH offers a variety of courses including preschool training, parent guidance courses, audiological rehabilitation programme, vocational courses and summer programmes. It runs graduation programmes like BSc in Computer Sciences, BA in Fine Arts and Bachelor of Commerce and a course to groom professionals (both at the undergraduate and post graduate levels) in Audiology and Speech Language Pathology. NISH also offers a diploma course for those interested in teaching children with challenges. Besides the academic arena, the institution plays a major role in various social service initiatives. Since rubella in mothers is a major cause for hearing ailments, it popularised the need for the rubella vaccine.

NISH Bachelor Academic Division. (Photo: VVivek Nair/HT)

Now, girl children in all government schools in the state are vaccinated against rubella. All government hospitals in the state also now have equipment to detect hearing ailments at birth. "Our immediate challenge is to start higher studies for children with autism, cerebral palsy and neurological disorders. They need to be educated, trained and assessed differently. We also need to have a robust research wing," said Dr Samuel N Mathew, executive director, who left an IT job in the US four years ago to take up this the new challenge.

"We are happy that the central government is planning to develop NISH as an institute of excellence on the lines of IIT, IIM and AIIMS," said chief minister Oommen Chandy. It would seem that the country has finally realised the need for a centre of excellence for the differently abled.

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