Shomu Ghosh, 28, has moderate mental retardation. In the last 10 years he has been at Shankara Special School, Ghosh has become quite independent. "He loves doing physical labour, and we are now planning to train him in pottery. He can kneed dough, which is a good outlet for his energy," says N Sujatha. Ghosh is not the only one, there are 54 more 'children' like him, who are being educated at the Shankara Special School. Unlike most other special schools, this school doesn't follow any age criteria while admitting students.
The youngest student is eight years of age and the oldest is 40 plus. "We have no criteria, we are here for anyone who needs us. Most students here are the ones who are not accepted by other schools," she says. Situated in Sector 33, the school is being run by Speech and Hearing Specialist N Sujatha since 2001. "Actually it was started by my parents N Narayan Swami and Bhama Swami, both special educators, in 1995, and I took it over after they passed away," she says. "But, I had these children as my friends and companions since early childhood. Firstly, I studied in an integrated set up (Air Force Golden Jubilee School) and secondly because my parents always worked in schools for mentally challenged," she adds.
And since she grew up with them, Sujatha had a better understanding about their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. So when it came to choosing a profession, the choice came naturally. Sujatha studied Speech Therapy and joined Delhi Government's Rao Tula ram Hospital (Najafgarh, Delhi). But as destiny would have it, both her parents passed away and the school was left without any active administrator.
"Initially I could devote only some hours towards the school, after my hospital hours. But then, I couldn't concentrate on my job as my mind was always with Shankara. That was when I decided to quit the government job," she says. "Leaving a safe and secure government job to run a fledgling school, dependent majorly upon sponsors, was not an easy task. But I felt my parents' souls are here and they drew me," she says.
"My parents began with four children, today we have 55 special 'children' coming basically from east Delhi and Noida colonies," informs Sujatha. The children are divided into four groups, depending upon their abilities. The speech therapy classes are held in groups while the occupational therapy is done individually. "We have an educational plan for each student, since each one has different needs and understanding," she says.
"We have some borderline cases also, and these are taught academics, and after they achieve a certain level, we send them to main school. Three children have joined BVB, Delhi," she says. Among staff, there are special educators, one occupational therapist and three helpers for the children. "Plus we have 3-4 volunteers who work free," she adds.
Activities in school
The children may be special but the school runs just like other normal schools. There is morning assembly every day, during which children do prayers, physical exercises and also sing rhymes. "Most of these children are hyperactive so even making them stand in a line is a task," says Anshu Pandey, who works as an occupational therapist here. Different festivals and important days like Childrens' Day etc are celebrated by calling students from other schools. "Apart from this, we also hold one overnight camp and one outstation trip for our students so that they become independent. Further, their parents' also need to learn to have confidence in the ability of their child," informs Pandey. "Mainstreaming these children is very important," she adds.
"But the most important thing is that parents accept their child's disability. Though in the last 14 years I have seen the mindset changing, a lot still needs to be done. This is the reason we hold regular counselling sessions with parents," says Sujatha.
The fee depends upon the income of parents. Those who can afford can pay, those who cannot, don't. Of the 55, 22 pay full fee, Rs 1,000 per month, the rest are not charged at all.
There is a school bus, which picks students from home every morning and drops them home in the afternoon, after school closes.
Last month, the school launched "Sunshine" a new program with the support of Orange Business Services. Under this programme, 40 underprivileged women are given training in vocations like tailoring, pottery, glass painting and pottery. "English and basic computer and marketing skills are also being taught to these women so that they can compete in the market," says Sujatha. "The special children will also be trained at the vocational centre, depending upon the skill each child has, except for tailoring," she says. "It's important that these people be taught some skill so that they can utilise their time fruitfully and also be self-sufficient," she adds.
"I plan to have an outlet to sell the products made here, so that the school becomes self-dependent, and we no more have to look up to donors, individual or corporate, to support us," says Sujatha.
40-year-old Rashmi is a resident of Sector 26. She has been a student of Shankara school for the past 15 years. She suffers from mental retardation and her speech is also not clear, but she is very good with any work that can be done with hands.
She is seven years of age and a resident of sector 61. Tanisha is an autistic child. She joined the school at the age of 4.5 years. And is learning basic skills like how to sit, stand, walk around, eat with own hands etc. She also has a problem with speaking.