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In a country which boasts of unity in diversity, how unified are our efforts in ensuring an inclusive society for the disabled? Dr Mithu Alur speaks to ParentCircle on this.
Disability proves to be a big hurdle for people who suffer from various mental and physical impairments. Even simple tasks pose a challenge for them and every day is a struggle. However, Padmashri awardee and Founder Chairperson of The Spastics Society of India, now called ADAPT (Able Disable All People Together), Dr Mithu Alur, has envisaged a world where all disabled people can live with a smile. ParentCircle talks to her as she gives her take on various policies and measures for the inclusion and integration of people with special needs into mainstream society.
PC: From 1972 till date, have you seen any significant change in the manner in which differently-abled people are perceived?
MA: No. I am disappointed to say that I have not seen any major change in the way differently-abled people are perceived by the society as a whole.
PC: Does the country offer enough facilities and opportunities for differently-abled people?
MA: I'm afraid, no. In fact, there is a lack of a clear-cut policy formulation, which has prevented disabled people from getting access to existing provisions and services available to other vulnerable groups of the society that are socially or economically disadvantaged.
The entire infrastructure is against the disabled - there are hardly any wheelchair user-friendly pavements; the roads are full of potholes; most toilets lack facilities for the disabled and a majority of shops and establishments do not have proper accessibility for them.
In contrast, foreign countries offer much for disabled people in terms of accessibility. The environment abroad is adjusted to suit the needs of disabled people. One can move freely on the roads, in the park, the market place, museums, hospitals - every place is disabled-friendly. India has a lot of catching up to do in these areas. Activists and civil society organisations need to work together with the government to provide more facilities for the disabled. Even when it comes to public outlook and attitudes towards the disabled and employment opportunities for them, India lags far behind most countries.
PC: You have always propagated 'inclusion' as the best method of educating and employing differently-abled people. How far has this concept been successful?
MA: It has definitely helped a lot. Now, the RTE (Right to Education) Act includes children with disabilities as well. Unfortunately, although policy formulation is done, policy implementation still suffers. To implement the RTE, the main aim is to ensure complete transformation of schools, where principals, head teachers, parents, peers, siblings, children and families are all educated about inclusive education.
PC: It's very difficult to find disabled-friendly services even in major cities of India. How do you plan to solve this problem?
MA: It is not enough to have legislation. For effective implementation of the law, teachers should be taught how to deal with special needs children. The education system should be modified to suit the requirements of children with disabilities.
At the National level, I convened the 'All India Regional Alliance for Inclusive Education' (AIRA), which included many spastics societies from across the country and other partner organisations, to spread awareness about the disabled. These regional partners, in turn, have networks of NGOs in their regions with whom they are collaborating.
PC: What are the current projects that ADAPT is working on?
MA: Currently, we are working on a transition model that involves a shift from special education to inclusive education.
PC: How many differently-abled persons have you been able to reach out to and in how many cities?
MA: The first model combining education treatment has now been replicated in 20 of the 31 states of the country including Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. We have reached out to more than a million families and children.
PC: What advice do you give to parents who are raising differently-abled children?
MA: I spend as much time as possible with parents of differently-abled children and try my best to solve their issues. Sometimes, I advise them to be a bit detached from their problems because I think it is very important that parents spend time not only with their disabled child, but also with their other children.
PC: How does one make a normal child sensitive towards those with special needs?
MA: One can start by encouraging both normal and disabled children to play together or spend time in each other's company. Research indicates that it is emotionally, socially and cognitively harmful to remove disabled children from their peer groups and keep them segregated in a special environment. Many are able to learn side-by-side along with their normal peers.
PC: What keeps you motivated?
MA: The suffering that disabled people undergo keeps me motivated to do something for them and try and give them access to good quality education and a job that will make them independent and more confident. I would like to see all disabled people with a smile, not tears.
PC: As a person trying to reach out to a section of people who are often alienated from society, how do you deal with stress?
MA: My job involves meeting a lot of people who work for the poor and underprivileged - musicians, artists and teachers. I also meet parents. All these make my job interesting and dynamic.
To deal with stress, I involve myself in various activities such as yoga, meeting people I love, playing the piano. I also visit the theatre to watch plays and go to the movies.
PC: Your message to our readers?
MA: We cannot hope to build a better world without working on ourselves first. Our work is our religion, it has been a work of love, one which has allowed us to care for the needy, the disabled and the poor.
We could not have achieved what we have without faith. Faith has enabled us to go beyond material desires and nurture a helping spirit, thereby, building a better and a caring India.