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Executive Director's Blog

Reflections From Dhanushkodi: The Town Wiped Away By Nature

Executive Director's Blog. Published on 17 Sept., 2016

During our family’s visit to Rameswaram island in September 2016, we went out to see Dhanushkodi which is the tip of the Pamban island and is India’s border point protruding out Southeast into the Bay of Bengal. The place is at sea level and tapers off to a thin strip from where Sri Lanka is only 19 miles away.

Dhanushkodi became a “ghost town” about 52 years ago, after a cyclone wiped away the town and 1800 people in a few hours of Nature’s rage. Some survived to tell the gruesome story.

Historical narrations describe the bizarre events of the night of December 22, 1964 when a rare cyclone hit Dhanushlodi, the vibrant transit point from Sri Lanka to India. It has been raining heavily for several days, but in those pre-weather-satellites era, nobody predicted the path of an imminent cyclone or its speed, strength or direction. People couldn’t be forewarned to evacuate or stay away. At 11.55 pm on that ill-fated night, a passenger train was entering the Dhanushkodi Station, with 110 passengers and 5 crew. The signal had failed sometime back, but the driver decided to take the risk and take the train forward. A series of 24-feet-high, forceful, twirling, lashing waves hit abruptly and the train disappeared for ever with its load of people. Gone without a trace. In those moments, everything else in Dhanushkodi also crumbled instantly to pieces. Within a span of minutes, Nature finished its ruthless frenzy.

Dhanushkodi was a thriving place, because local people and tourists continuously transited through the town to board the ferry to Sri Lanka. There were houses, hotels, hospitals, shops, places of worship and everything else associated with human dwellings. It was the scenic strip of land closeted by Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. The town was destroyed beyond recognition overnight. It took 2 days for people in the mainland to know of this disaster – unimaginable in today’s internet-connected world of instant messaging and real-time streaming.

I went there after reading some historical pieces and blogs of others who visited earlier. I had some mental pictures of what to expect. Seeing the place first-hand allowed those hazy pictures to come alive in my imagination and I was able to link it further in my thought process. 

When we arrived, private vehicles were allowed only up to a spot about 10 km from the tip of land. Further down from where vehicles see ‘No Entry’, we saw a beautiful, straight, 6 km road, just completed, stretching till the old Dhanushkodi Railway Station. The road is not opened for public yet. We hired a 4-wheel drive Tempo van to reach a beach about 4 km up from the tip, but further down from the old Dhanushkodi Railway Station. The driver took us through an uneven shallow path that wound in and out of sand, dirt and water close to sea shore all the way. That was one tough ride. He stopped at the lonely remote beach for some time and let us enjoy the sea for a few minutes. I walked and ran further down about a kilometer on the sea-shore. I wanted to get a feel of the loneliness and quietness of the remote place, and then I ran back. The sun had almost gone down when the driver took us back. Ravi, our driver, brought us to the relics and left us to wander through the ruins of Dhanushkodi.

None of the old structures had roofs. There are pieces of walls still standing, that helped me mentally re-create the pre-cyclone days. There are a few broken structures still around, including the wall of the big water tank and remains of the railway platform, reminding us of the extent of devastation and harshness of the fury. There is a big roofless church with walls intact. The windows and doors are gone – I don’t know if it was taken by the looters or the waters. Ravi pointed us to a make-shift temple where a “floating stone which appeared in the water after the cyclone” was kept alongside idols of other deities. There were thatched huts – some with roof, some without. Peacocks roamed around leisurely here and there. An eerie silence draped the place. On an elevated ground in the middle, there were heavy construction equipment to pave the road, pointing us towards the future and prompting us to forget the past.

Standing there, I looked up at the sky. It was calm and clear. I looked out at the sea. It was calm green water all around and it seemed peaceful all the way to the horizon. I tried to project on to my mental screen that wild night when the water was lashing out and whirling high. I tried to feel the cold salty water that hit the train and took it violently to the bottom of the ocean. I tried to listen to the screams and then pictured the silence at the bottom of the sea with all 115 bodies lying still in 6 coaches and the engine. It all must have been over in a few minutes. Although I tried several times, the brutal strength of the water was unimaginable for me. I have seen places like Niagara Falls where water fall down with great force and terrifying sound, but I was not able to imagine the fury of the lashing waves that can pull down whole trains, take off roofs, break down walls, and take away hundreds of people instantly.

The Tamil Nadu government declared the place uninhabitable once the reports were made and assessment of the events completed. They didn’t want to build another town in that vulnerable place. However, life limped back to Dhanushkodi some time later, as a few went there to live in huts. They spread their fishing nets to make a living. Uninhabitable didn’t carry any meaning for them. It didn’t deter them from returning to the same disastrous piece of land. 

However, Dhanushkodi is no more the old bustling, busy town. Will it regain the old glory to be the transit point between two countries? I don’t know. But my thoughts drifted off to look at this creepy place from another angle.

 

As I stood among the ruins, roughly 52 years after the dark day, the eerie silence around the “Ghost town” was a loud testimony of 4 basic aspects of human existence – fragility, uncertainty, undying spirit and ingenuity.

 

Human lifeform is frail to the extent that even a small incision, fracture, or infection can be fatal.

Human lifespan is uncertain every instant because life can take any turn any moment.

Unthinkable, unexplainable events happen in everybody’s lifecycle.

There are no guarantees and invulnerabilities.

There are no lasting facades nor persona.

Life as we know is delicate, flimsy and feeble.

The future is always uncertain, unpredictable and erratic.

Dhanushodi is a showcase of these harsh realities - the abrupt, forceful destruction that smashed a community and its dreams in an instant without any chance of survival. This has happened all through history in all parts of the world in one way or the other. Yes, we cannot withstand the million volts of the lightning or the huge waves that lash the shores. We cannot stop the flash floods or the violent storms. We will have to run from the wild fire that comes devouring everything on its way. People die in hordes in natural calamities all around the world. Yes, our lives are fragile and our future is uncertain!

 

A few hundred meters away into the land we saw some huts, similar to the ones we saw near the relics, bustling with activities. There were men roaming around, women going in and out of the kitchen and children playfully chasing each other. We saw to our amusement solar panels on top of most of the thatched huts. There were a number of them. Visible to me was the undying spirit of the human beings that prompts them try again and again to survive the odds and conquer nature’s challenges. Evident was the ingenuity to bring home the latest technology to light up their lives and run their tasks.

 

In spite of the possibility of disasters people live in treacherous places and carry on life

People find ingenious ways of survival and innovative solutions to everyday problems

From the devastations, people rise up to conquer nature again and again

Human spirit never gives up

Human ingenuity never ends

Imagination has been our strength all through history

Creativity has been our forte through the ages

 

 

Mount Vesuvius submerged Pompei in its volcanic eruption, treacherous Atlantic waters sank the Titanic, cruel plague spread death across Europe, evil Tsunami waves lashed Asia. Numerous other calamities both natural and man-made hit people around the world all through the ages. but the human spirit never died. If it was 2 step back, it was always 4 step forward in the next possible instant.

That is the way we go forward as human beings, marching towards the future to conquer the ruthless forces of nature. We will not give up. We will stand up again, rebuild, and defy all odds, however monstrous that may be. With our ingenuity we will conquer. Today we have reached Mars, but our eyes are fixed farther beyond, out into the dark space…. We will reach there one day, because what is inbuilt into our soul is stronger than the deterrent forces outside ….

The Rediscovered Olympic Spirit: The Story of Abbey and Nikki

The Rediscovered Olympic Spirit: The Story of Abbey and Nikki

Olympics is the ultimate stage for athletes around the world. The ace athletes everywhere dream & practice long years for that moment of glory on the Olympic victor’s stand. Let alone win, it is a great privilege to be selected to represent one’s country and get a chance to compete against the top talents from other countries.  

Olympics is the best place of display for physical prowess in combination with mental alertness. Every millisecond counts. Every millimeter is precious. Every ounce matters. It is all about swiftness, agility, precision, strength, and stamina . The world celebrates the gold medal winner. The limelight is on the record breaker. They all come to grab the gold medal, break the world record and stand tall for their country. They want to show the world how they can run faster, jump higher and shoot sharper. They show their strength and agility in wrestling and gymnastics.

Rio2016 Olympics was no different. More than 11300 athletes came together from 207 countries. As they earned the medals, emotions flowed freely: they cried, screamed, jumped, rolled or ran around the stadium. They were able to beat others and occupy the victory stand. It was all about achievement, success, fame, limelight.

Yet in Rio2016, the story of Abbey D Agastinao and Nikky Kimbal stood out like no other. They were celebrated for a totally different reason. Everybody applauded them. TV and radio channels across the world heaped praises on them. Social media was teaming with positive comments. Everyone emphasized that Abbey and NIkky rediscovered the “the Olympic spirit”.

Abbey and NIkki were in the heats for 5000m. They didn’t know each other. But somewhere on the way they hit each other and fell down on the track. Nothing unusual. That happens in track at times. For a moment, they were lost. Suddenly Abbey got up and instead of running to catch up on the lost moments, she looked over, reached out quickly and picked up Nikki. They started running and then Abbey had severe pain and she limped and fell down. She urged Nikki to go on and save time. But Nikki didn’t. She returned the favor this time and picked up Abbey up and they ran. They were nowhere near the timing to get into the finals. But the world was watching. Everybody was stunned by this unbelievable, spontaneous display of concern for the competitor, the outpouring of genuine care without even caring about one’s own condition.

Abbey-Nikki-Olympic spirit

At that moment, they showed the world, that “it is nice to be important but it is more important to be nice”. They told the world that “you can be both a competitor and kind and responsive at the same time."

For sometime the chatter about world records, medal tallies, and cheating stopped.

Everybody was talking about the fabulous example this duo displayed so gracefully, so impulsively.

When they woke up that day to compete, they never thought they would have a historic moment like this. None of us also wake up for such moments. We are all in the fast track to win, to get past others. But for each of us, such moments will present once in a while, where we can show an unrehearsed act of kindness, spur-of-the-moment thoughtfulness. It might be an occasion to open the door for somebody, or let another person jump through the queue, vacate the seat for a woman with a child. But most of us may not even recognize such an opportunity because we are all focused on our own life’s troubles and dreams.

Abbey and Nikki were awarded a medal that surpassed the triple-triple of Usain Bolt and the 23 medal record of Micheal Phelps. This award, the Pierre de Coubertin medal, was only awarded 17  times in Olympic history and is reserved for athletes, volunteers or officials who are deemed to have demonstrated the Olympic spirit. Abbey and Nikki picked up the medal when they picked up each other on the tracks.

Abbey had to undergo surgery and may never be able to compete in another Olympics or in fact in any competitive sports. However, for Abbey and Nikki, it was not what they accomplished in terms of faster, higher, longer measurements. The Olympics sized big heart of consideration, compassion and concern for the fellow human being is what brought them the coveted medal.

Olympics is an event that happens once in four years. It is unique because this is the only event on planet Earth where the maximum number of people from all the countries come together to find out who is the best among them. They compete against each other, in the same pitch, on the same track trying to outsmart each other. But at the end of it, they are still able to shake hands with each other and retreat in grace.

At a time where hundreds of armed conflict zones exist across the world where men are killing each other, Olympics spirit stands out. The athletes from enemy countries are willing embrace each other and shake hands. How good it would have been if we had Olympics games across the world every year and we celebrate each other. If that happens,  this world of ours – where we are killing each other -  would be progressing much more. We would be making heaven on earth!

Our Students with Special Needs Deserve Better ....

I posted this on my Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/specialeducationhub earlier. Posting it here so that visitors to website also can read it!

On July 4, 2016 we had about 30 deaf students and their parents come for admission to the Higher Education Foundation Program (HEFP) at NISH. HEFP is a program developed by us to build a foundation in English, Mathematics and Indian Sign Language so that the deaf student may be ready for a University level degree program. HEFP looks at the competency of the student at the end of each assessment period. Students who don't make progress exit. We guide each student to an appropriate practical short term program such as an ASAP course, hospitality course of ITDC or vocational program of VRC or Mitraniketan. Those who make progress in HEFP continue to complete one year before they attempt Degree Admission Competency Examination (DACE).

We spent time with each of the students who were selected for the HEFP after they failed to qualify in DACE conducted 10 days back. All of them have certificates that show that they have passed +2 exams. Some of them had A+ for all subjects. But the DACE answer sheets told a different story. None of them had the level of a primary school student. The parents didn't know this when they brought in their children to be admitted to the degree program initially. Now they realise 12 years of schooling had been a waste.I won't blame the parents for their ignorance. They had hoped and believed that the schools where they sent the children would teach them. Instead the schools gave them marks. Not knowledge. When a student sits in the classroom for 12 long years and do not know the alphabets or count to 100, what is the excuse?

I found the students so enthusiastic. Some were so elated that they are getting an admission to a foundation program with us. This is despite their initial desire to join a degree program and the disappointment of failing the DACE. Some of them had got admission to other colleges for degree programs, but chose instead to come and join the HEFP. The glimmer of hope in their eyes showed that they are eager to learn. But it is a fact that they won't be able to make up for the 12 years of criminal neglect in the schools. Too much time has been lost. A few will show progress. But for most others, a vocational course that requires practical knowledge than language comprehension may be appropriate. Most parents are disappointed when they saw the answer sheets. They wished somebody had told them these truths sooner. It cannot be justified in anyway that these parents and their children were kept in the dark about what was done all these years. At the end of the day, I was mentally tired after seeing the raw emotions of these people who were heart broken. They have the same dreams about their children as I have for mine. But they were deceived.

One thing we promised them at the end of the conversations yesterday - we will guide them the right way so that their child is successful. The lost years cannot be recovered, but a new path can be pursued - something with which that they can earn a living and be independent.

My concern is also for the students who are still in the system. They will come next year again with certificates that carry A+. And then again the cycle of disillusionment and disappointment.The system has to change. We have to stop deceiving these children and their families!

What will we do to make Jisha’s sacrifice worthwhile?

What will we do to make Jisha’s sacrifice worthwhile?

In 2012 when we heard the terrifying news that a young woman was brutally raped, mutilated and murdered in Delhi, it was easy to brush it off as cruelties of thugs in a big city. It was far away in Delhi anyway. It was easy to say 'this will never happen in our state'. 

I remember speaking to our students, called to discuss the Nirbhaya case. "We cannot feel complacent because this crime happened somewhere far away. Today it is our responsibility to take steps to make sure this doesn't happen in our vicinity". There was a lot of hue and cry across the nation and even around the world. The culprits were booked and they went to jail. BBC brought out a film that the government chose to ban, rather than use it to acknowledge and call for a social change – a cure for a cancer that is spreading in our young minds. As time went by, we forgot Jyothi Singh and her sacrifice.

We never changed. We pretended it is not going to happen again. But the cancer was spreading across country. The decadent, festered, evil mind of another young man surfaced at a faraway place in 2016.

It happened right here, in the heartland of little Kerala!!

Not in a remote village ….

Not in the dark side of a city ….

Not at midnight when she was returning from a night club …

Not when she was clad in tight jeans and revealing clothes …

Not while she was roaming around with a boyfriend …

Not in a running bus on streets of a busy city ….

NO, NO, NO… That was not where it happened!

In her own home, where she was resting ….

Right in her own home, with good people living nearby …

In broad day light when all the good people were awake …

In the well-to-do, middle-class, educated community of Perumbavoor, Kerala.

It happened in our “God’s own country”

In a State which boasts of 100% literacy!

In a State which takes pride in social justice and social security!

In the State of Kerala where women are supposed to be liberated!

The last moments – The horrific suffering

She was raped and mutilated and killed. It is horrifying to read what happened, and it is still more horrifying to write what that man did to her. But I should write. I should not keep quiet. I need to write. Because, more is at stake than ever, for our society, our women, our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our wives – human race itself.

I really don't know the extent of her suffering before her last breath.

Was she mutilated and stabbed before she was raped?

Was she killed and then raped and mutilated?

Was she conscious enough to know the pain as the sharp knife pierced her genitals?

Could she scream when she was attacked?

How much did she struggle and fight back?

How helpless did she feel under the grip of the senseless monster?

How scared was she, as evil looked down at her?

What was she thinking in those last moments?

Did she lose consciousness before she gave up?

What did he do once he knew that she was unconscious?

When did he let go and walk off with blood on his hands?

Was she breathing at that point when she was alone?

Could she have been saved if somebody knew at that time?

I don't know. I tread to think. I shiver. My eyes are tearing up!

It could have happened to anybody else whom I know. I have family in Perumbavoor, living there for more than half a century. Just because I don't know Jisha doesn't reduce the revulsion and shock and the sense of helplessness!

She was targeted because she was a woman.

It didn’t matter if she was a Dalit,

It didn’t matter if she was a Law student.

It didn’t matter if she lived under a flimsy thatched roof in a make-shift hut.

It didn’t matter what religion she believed in.

It didn’t matter which political affiliation she had.

It didn’t even matter what age she was.

The only criterion was her sex. She was considered weak and defenseless!

My anger is at the society that looks down on woman. My anger is at the family that tells woman to suffer silently. My anger is at the parents that bring up boys to treat women like dirt.

In our society,

A woman is a weakling

A woman cannot defend herself

A woman cannot raise her voice

A woman cannot make her own choices

A woman is asked to look down while walking

A woman has to be guarded by a man to be safe

A woman is raised up with a sense of fear and shame

A woman cannot feel secure on the streets after sun-down,

A woman cannot feel safe even in daylight in a deserted by-lane

This attitude has to change.

Why did he do it?

He is a criminal, he is a pervert, and he is a man whose thinking has been polluted and skewed. He might have been abused as a child, his young mind might have been traumatized with unspeakable cruelties, he might have been exposed to women being brutalized, his childhood may have been full of negative influences, and he must have watched numerous pictures and videos that portrayed sadism. This is not uncommon in our society where any type of information is available with a touch on the screen. Continuous exposure makes you create reality based on what you see. When positive influences don’t nullify those negativities, the dark reality tarries on and spreads through the mind like a cancer. Such minds are prone to act out their fantasies – having lost the ability to understand the consequences. Their conscience is numb and their ability to discern right from wrong is long lost. They rise to inflict destruction on their prey. And the society has to suffer!

A balanced person cannot do cruelty that harms another human being. A man with self-respect will not be disrespectful to others. A man with self-esteem will not humiliate another person. But none of us are perfect. We all have scars on our mind, hurts from others. But mind is so resilient to recover and go on. We keep getting hurt in life and we have our little nuances in behavior because of that. We still survive in a complex society with healthy relationships. But it is a different case when the mental wound becomes deeply infested sore and destroys the mind totally. In that state, the person is driven by sadistic, anarchist, evil thoughts. He is filled with hatred and is restless till he acts out. That is a mind to be dreaded.

What such a mind needs is a mental transformation. A cure for his sick mind. A healing of the deep, festering trauma within. If left to himself, he will continue to inflict unbearable pain and destruction on others around him. He will become more bold and will search out victims. Their place is behind bars till they can be restored to a healthy mind.

That brings us to the point, that this monster may not be an isolated case. There could be persons who are sitting next to us with similar thinking. The demon within is just waiting to act out in an apt situation, an isolated surrounding, a suitable time!

A needed change in thinking

It is important that boys are taught early on in life about respecting women. That starts with respecting their mother and sisters. A father who respects his child's mother is the first and best lesson for a son. He needs to see that respectful behavior day-in and day-out. Disrespecting a woman, making comments that make her uncomfortable, lewd looks that invades her privacy, touch that violates her person should not be tolerated.

It is a total change of mind that is needed in our hierarchical, patriarchal society that has practiced man's dominance for thousands of years. Society does not progress with the parochial mindset of looking down on women. We have to admit and accept that times have changed. It is no more a man's world. It will never be again! It is equally a woman's world. Women will be found now onwards in all sorts of places in society - pilots on fighter planes, drivers on public buses, engineers on high rise buildings, CEOs of corporations – places considered unattainable in the past.

This also means women should have the freedom to move around without fear any time, any place, alone or in company of anybody whom they choose, dress the way they feel to express themselves, take up any task they believe they can, study and learn as much as they want. 

In our community, if a young woman is not married off by age 22 or 23 or at the most 25, eye-brows go up. The constant barrage of questions put forward with a false sense of sympathy is, "Couldn't you find a good boy?" No boy is asked this question. That is so depressing to the girls and their parents. Young women who want to be independent hate this question from their relatives and extended family. Some of them refuse to come to family or social gathering because of this annoying question. This question implies that a girl has to be under the care of a man; else she is insecure, useless, unwanted. NO. A woman can choose to marry or not. It is not like the 20th century or before where woman was under the care of man. Now she has the education, the economic independence to have a good life herself.  She can be assertive.

Leave her alone! Let her be herself. Prepare her to have an independent, successful, fulfilling safe life in the society.

Henceforth, every girl child should be taught to stand up for herself, look other people in the eyes, react if a man makes her uncomfortable through his looks, comments, touch. She should be taught to defend herself without fear.

And the teenage girls, the young women, middle aged and elderly ladies who grew up listening to words of submission should consciously learn to assert themselves - within their families first and then outside. It is time, our society changed. It has to happen. It should. Now!

It is the men who need to change. The accepted male dominance they see in their families should change. The perverted and totally distorted image of sexuality and femininity portrayed by the internet images should not determine their attitudes.

We cannot wait anymore.

Women have to rise up and men need to rise up alongside. This is not about women alone. This is about us as a society. It is our safety that is at risk. Safety of those whom we love and care about! Our sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, nieces, friends, neighbors, colleagues … everyone whom we care about!

There has to be specific mandatory classes in schools, colleges and workplaces that can help develop balanced attitudes towards women. This has to be reinforced with positive images they see in the campus, at home, workplace, market place and everywhere else in society. A generational change in thinking is needed.

There should never be another woman who has to suffer like Jisha in our society! It is a shame! We have to erase that shame and regain our dignity through better treatment of our fellow human beings.

Let us do it for all women, one woman at a time! That is what we can do for Jisha!

When I watch kids running around ….

A clear majority of the population we serve are children with congenital conditions – hearing and speech impairment, cerebral palsy, intellectual challenges, Down syndrome, multiple disabilities. They are from all sorts of backgrounds – economical, education, religious, racial, color – and it is apparent that all disabilities happen across all societal structures.  Their innocent faces and playfulness, tells us that kids are just kids - everywhere. When they come to our facility, the children sit with the parent most of the time – unaware of the parent’s heart weighed down with anxiety and grief. The parents are mostly young mothers below thirty. This may be their first or second child. The expressions on their faces sometimes reveal what they are going through. Caring for the special needs child has changed their lives. On most days, while walking in the corridors I meet parents waiting for their turn in the diagnostic and therapy sessions. Once in a while, a young couple come to my room and they breakdown as they talk about their challenges. These parents and children have become part of my life and I realized that this experience has a long term effect on me as I watch kids everywhere.

I had to travel quite a lot recently and waiting at departure terminals has been an essential part. As I am forced to wait due to the delays or long transit time I spend some time working on my laptop, and rest of the time I just sit and watch the crowd passing by. Airports are busy places and I can see a lot of people going in a hurry. A lot of young families pass by with their young children – some on strollers, others hanging on to the parent’s fingers or yet others just running along. Some are busy eating, or asking questions, or running ahead, or pulling on their small carry-ons. If there are two or more, they may be busy chasing each other. Then there are families that sit in the adjacent seats with their children. The children will be running around playfully doing one thing or the other. Every place is a playground for them. They may have their own teddy bears or small toy cars. Some may be busy playing the video games on tablets. I watch them with a sense of fascination – as if I see such kids for the first time.

As I watch them, my heart gets a spontaneous, momentary refreshing feeling of joy. I look at the parents and see how unaware they are of their child, immersed in their own thoughts. Some may be watching their child with a smile – a carefree smile. Somehow I get a feeling of relief. Sometimes sitting there, I try to imagine the time when this child was born to the parents few years back and try to think of their emotions at that time. I try to picture those first few years. The child grew through natural development cycles. Smiled, walked on fours, stood up, started calling ‘dada’ and ‘mama’, took baby steps and on and on. Nothing to worry, no cares, no concerns. They are happy. I am so happy for them too! But then soon my mind gets back to the children and their parents who come to us. That reality puts me in a different perspective. I am more aware of our own responsibility to give the best services possible. We need to continuously improve on what we do so that we can get those parents to a state of mind that is worry free – just like these care free parents in front of me.

I also realize how we all take things for granted everyday. The parents with a special needs child have a different journey in life than that of a typically developing child. While one set of parents casually go through life’s events, not realizing the blessings bestowed on them, taking every developmental milestones for granted, the other set of parents have a path where every small advancement is eagerly noted and celebrated with a deep sense of relief and joy. The priorities in the path strewn with disappointments, depression, and loneliness are different from the other one. Possibly, the mere utterance of the word, “mama” gives much more ecstasy than when the typical child sings a nursery rhyme or reels out the alphabets. But they both deeply love their child and have the same emotions when their child cries or laughs. They both tightly hug their tiny-tot every day, wishing for a good future! Me too!

I realize my own unconscious emotional swing while watching the kids - one in the mother's lap or the one running around - is something that I have to take balanced so as to keep my perspectives right!

Addendum: I sit there and just move my fingers, speak to myself, hum a tune, or write a sentence and try to understand and appreciate how much complex mechanical, electrical and electronic process is executed within me every minute and how my system just responds without me conscious of any of those! Wonders of life!!

Child Rights Bill for Children with Intellectual and Developmental Challenges

Blog entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew, Executive Director, NISH

Yesterday (January 2, 2016) I was part of discussions with a group of parents, lawyers, service providers and NGO representatives about a topic that needs urgent attention. – the need to prepare a Bill for the rights of children with intellectual disabilities. The meeting was organized by the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights. I came off with a number of insights. Heard stories that can break one’s heart – stories that require urgent action.

Every disability is unique in itself. Deficiencies in hearing, speech, vision, mobility, and intelligence have its own unique challenges. But “mental challenge” or “intellectual impairment” requires a special consideration among special needs because the cognition is limited and hence this population is extra vulnerable. They have limitation in acquiring knowledge or skill, in taking decisions required in life, understanding situations and discerning dangers. Additionally they could have physical limitations too. Some with multiple disabilities may have mental challenges as a basic limitation. If one’s cognition is intact, today’s technology can reasonably provide the necessary compensation to make up for the impairments or provide alternate methods. If one has only hearing impairment, it is possible to use hearing aids or cochlear implants to help with hearing. The Deaf population use sign language or written language to communicate. Augmentative and Alternative communication (AAC) strategies can be used by those who are non-verbal or having difficulty with speech. Wheelchairs and a host of mobility devices can be used by orthopedically impaired. The best example of a person with disability but no intellectual impairment, who can live a full life with the help of technology is Prof. Stephen Hawking. He is currently the most respected scientist on planet Earth. But when it comes to cognition impairment, little can be done to compensate for the impairment with technology as the person needs assistance in every aspect of daily life continuously. For this population, the State has to provide adequate laws that will protect them from abuse, neglect and discrimination. Our constitution assures in its preamble all citizens to have equal opportunity, but for individuals with mental challenges, this doesn’t carry any meaning when he or she is not able to advocate for themselves.

Some of the personal stories narrated in today’s meeting are worth hearing. Because that will stir our conscience and also help us to understand some of the realities. One nun, who runs a special school and orphanage narrated the case of about 10 girls whom she has provided shelter in her institution because they have been sexually abused and the families didn’t want them in their homes. Another person who runs an orphanage narrated the stories of several mentally challenged women who come and give birth to babies and the orphanage takes care of the children while the mothers are taken back by the families. The mothers don’t even know how to tend for the babies and hence don’t feel anything when they are taken away from their own babies. Another person who is the principal of a special school narrated an incident that happened in his town. A mentally challenged boy pushed another youngster while they were participating in a Nabi Dina Rally. The youngster fell down but nothing much happened. However, the uncle of the youngster, who was watching this, mercilessly beat up the mentally challenged kid. The boy had to be hospitalized with serious injuries. The people who saw the incident filed a complaint with the Police but they refused to file a case against the influential uncle. He roams around free in the town while the boy remains in the hospital. His mother is helpless.

I met a few passionate lawyers who have the expertize to draft a bill. I met a few service providers and professionals who knew the problems and are able to pin point the problems faces by this population. The Child Rights Commission Chairperson and her team gave the leadership to bring all of these good people together. I am confident when people with different expertize who are passionate and committed come together we can provide the framework needed to protect the less privileged in our society. I see a ray of hope!

Visit by the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India

Blog Entry by the Executive Director - Dr. Samuel N. Mathew

We had VVIP visitors yesterday on campus. Shri. Tawar Chand Gehlot is the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. He visited NISH along with Shri. Luv Varma, IAS Secretary and Shri. Awanish Kumar Awasthi, IAS Jt. Secretary of his ministry.

Mr. Gehlot is a seasoned politician of many years who has held numerous government positions. He has keen interest in social justice and upliftment and that makes his leadership a good fit for the ministry. This ministry has two major wings – Department of Social Justice and Empowerment and Department for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. Shri. Varma, IAS is the Secretary and Shri. Awasthi, IAS is Jt. Secretary in DEPwD.

The visit was initiated by the Ministry and we were pleased that he took the time to come and visit our students and staff. Being the only program in Trivandrum, this was the highlight of his visit to Kerala yesterday. He spent time with the children, went around the departments and spent time asking questions. He addressed the NISH family at a meeting in the new Auditorium. The government of Kerala was represented by Shri. A. Shajahan, IAS, Secretary for Department of Social Justice. The meeting itself was informal. In fact, we got the auditorium ready for his meeting. This was the first meeting in the new building.

Two children – one from the Early Intervention Program for the Deaf and the other from the Autism Intervention Program – performed. For them to do that in front of the audience was a challenge. For a few minutes we just held our breath as the child from AIP stood quietly. For a minute I thought we should call it off, if the child is not able to handle the big crowd staring at her. But suddenly she recouped and recited a Malayalam poem beautifully. The Minister was quick to react, and gave two bouquets of flowers to the children.

The other highlight was the portrait done by one of our students, Bobbin. He presented it to the Minister. Another beautiful painting done by Bala was also presented. As the meeting progressed, Arun Gopal, a faculty in the BFA department drew the caricature of the three visitors and presented them at the end of the meeting. A pleasant surprise for all of them. They were clearly overjoyed to look at their own caricature done in real time!

The Minister and his party went on for a meeting with the Chief Minister at his official residence – Cliff House. Officials from other organizations were also present. The CM had a very positive approach and the discussions were very open. He offered all sorts of help for the Central Schemes that provides help for the marginalized population. At the end of the talks he invited all of us for lunch in his house. As I understand that is quite unusual considering his busy schedule. He almost spent 2 hours with the Central team. A good rapport was seen between the two leaders – although they belong to totally opposing political parties. I think this is what is required – the ability to come together for the wellbeing of the people despite political differences.

The minister declared the amounts to be allocated for NISH – mostly based on the DPR. Impressive figures. Right now we will focus on the immediate needs. We hope to create a facility that will be a model campus with a culture that will spell excellence. A culture of inclusion and celebration of diversity. Culture transcends generations and that is what we hope for – an institutional culture that will be taken through the coming generations, even after we are all gone!

Starting from Alphabets ....
Blog entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew, Oct 5, 2015

We admitted a group of 19 students to our Higher Education Foundation Program (HEFP) recently. This is the group that was at the low end of the rank list in the entrance exam for our degree (hearing impaired) program. We knew most of them are very poor academically but may have potential to learn. They have a 12th grade certificate but that doesn’t mean anything in terms of their level of knowledge. Our plan is to set the foundation right for these students and see how they will be able to attempt the entrance examination next time. I was interested to find out some insights about this group and decided to mentor one of them. Probably somebody who is lowest ranked among them. I chose one and let me call him Ramesh so as not to reveal his identity.

Ramesh is my student. I met him first during the interview for the HEFP. His mother is an illiterate woman and his father doesn’t get involved in the family at all. Even as he came for the interview, the faculty had reported that there is something wrong with this boy since he was not following instructions and seemed to be disconnected with his parents. Later when he reported to class, I was told that he is a loner and didn’t know sign language at all and was not following anything in class.

I knew this case could be a one-off case that needed attention.

My wife and I visited Ramesh’s home one evening last week to understand what is the situation at home like. I was curious. It was small house in a village not far from my home. His sister and mother were at home. Ramesh’s sister had attended school till 12th. She communicates with Ramesh, but the parents don’t. We spent about 15 minutes trying to understand the family. His mother is the primary bread-winner working as a house-maid. His father hardly shows up at home.

Since I had taken Ramesh to our home earlier once, he knew the location. I asked him to come home on the next Sunday at 10.30 am.

He showed up on his cycle by 10.10  am. I started by asking him to write the English alphabets. He couldn’t. He was not able to get them in sequence. He wrote A, then B but he couldn’t go further. He tried to continue by writing random letters like P or S. I realized Ramesh doesn’t know English, Malayalam or sign language.  So I tried to teach him the sign for each of the letters. He started writing the letters corresponding to the signs. I prompted him to write them in order and then I quizzed him. He was still not able to get right letters such as F, G, M, N, R, S and W. We tried several times. He was not making progress. So I focused on the difficult letters and the signs. Repeated several more times in different ways, but he was not making much headway. I thought, probably this could be a little bit boring too. So after about an hour, I told him to take a break, visit his uncle who stays nearby my house and come back.

He came back with in an hour. I was not sure if he would have retained what I taught him earlier. I had all the reason to believe that he would have forgotten and I was ready to start all over again. That was logical since Ramesh was not able to retain the letters during our last session. Even after trying a few letters, he was forgetting the older ones we tried.

But I saw something amazing. When he came back and I showed him the signs and I asked him to write he started writing without any mistake. He was so confident now. I couldn’t believe this. I didn’t have any explanation. I thought that he would have forgotten, and here he was repeating without any mistake. We tried several times, may be about 10 times. He was amazingly accurate. I quizzed him with random letters, back and forth and he was getting it right every time. A total change. I don’t know what happened. He was able to write by himself all the 26 letters in the right order too.

He was retaining more than what I thought he will. I don’t know what this means. I am going to try the small letters now and then start on words. I am going to review from beginning once in a while to make sure that he is retaining. I don’t know how far he will go, but I am curious.

To me it looks like that he has the potential but before I make conclusions, let me observe….

During the beginning of 2010, we had the experience of interacting with a student in Madiyado, MP where he didn't know the concept of addition or subtraction although he was in 9th grade. So it was not an unusual tencounter with Ramesh... but...

 

I am angry in a way, at the system that wasted a young man’s life for about 12 years without even teaching him basic alphabets. And then a 12th grade certificate was given to him.

On a positive note, we have 18 more in our classrooms and my colleagues are doing the extraordinary work trying to open their mind to the world of knowledge!

A Note on Teacher's Day!

Blog Entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew, September 5, 2015

Today I wrote the following to my colleagues at NISH. 

"Teachers who love teaching, teaches children to love learning"

"A good teacher is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the way for others"

"Today you lead the school. Tomorrow your students will lead the world"

A Big Salute once more to the teachers, on this September 5 " The Teacher's Day". 

As I have said before on numerous occasions, teaching is the most noble profession, because you pass on the knowledge humans have acquired, so that human race can make progress tomorrow. You are that unique person who can motivate and encourage a student to be a positive contributor in his or her generation!

So,

Be proud to be a teacher. 

Be thankful to be a teacher! 

Be committed to be an inspiring teacher!

Any body can teach language, audiology, speech, computer science, accounting or fine arts or anything else.But only those who love teaching and see the big picture can inspire the student! Teaching doesn't happen if you lecture for an hour, but when the student understand something new and then go forward on his own to find out more!

Every moment is a teaching moment for a teacher. Every day, tell yourself "Today I will inspire my students at least in small way". Don't worry if you have no idea now. It will come. Just be ready when the bulb goes ON in your mind! Bring the relevance of the topic you are teaching to an inspirational thought. That will light the spark and start the fire in that young mind! Let inspiring be a habit in your life!

Everyday I am thankful for all of you who are committed and are pushing teaching and learning to one notch higher! 

Use technology. Experiment. Try something new. Brainstorm with others. 

Don't be afraid. Don't be shy. Don't doubt. The world is waiting. You can do it!

I am very sure, graduates from our programs are going to storm the world and will inspire others too!

All the best for a good weekend! Happy Teacher's Day!

Independence Day Thoughts!

Blog Entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew - Independence Day Thoughts. Uploaded on August 20, 2015

India is a young democracy compared to several other countries. Looking back, 1947 marked the turning point in India’s long history of foreign invasions and colonial rule. It is 68 years since people of the north, south, east and west of ‘Bharath’ came together to follow a common destiny – our own. Today, there are a number of things from that journey that make us proud. India is the only country that came out of a foreign rule through a non-violent movement. With passive resistance and mass movement, Indians did it against the ‘Empire where sun never sets’. India is one of the few countries that came out of the colonial rule and still have a sparkling democracy in action. Considering our diversity and the massive population, this is a great achievement. Several of our neighbours and the countries in Africa and Asia who got independence from a colonial power, fell into autocracy or military rule. India stood tall and vibrant all through these years. Our diversity is amazing. From South to North and from West to East, the cultural variation, the food habits, the dress, the traditions, the physical appearance are so different, yet we are one dynamic democracy!

However, we do have a long way to go. As an educator my thoughts linger on the education system. India had its own unique way of education in the distant past – Gurukulam. A system where the teacher imparted knowledge and skill to the student who stayed with the teacher. That is not practical today when education is a basic right and everybody needs to acquire a skill. The British system of education was introduced to prepare a group of people who obeyed orders and did the work efficiently for a well-oiled colonial machine. That didn’t encourage critical thinking or social responsibility. That is why we have to change dramatically for our next generation to be prepared to be a responsible society that surges ahead.

I have a vision for an education system where the future generations are molded holistically to become productive citizens. We don’t live in isolation. So context is important. We are not stagnant in time. So critical thinking and adaption to change is important. We are not permanent residents here. So we need to pass on what we acquired to the next generation.

In a nutshell my vision for education is this. A child starts to learn from the day it comes into the world. We don’t have much control over the love and care a child gets from its parents. However, when it is time for formal education, the first thing to be taught is to be curious and to be amazed at the nature around. Introduce this about three years. One should learn to ask the question ‘Why?” throughout one’s life. That will happen if the child is taught to look at plants, touch animals, and observe the heavens. This should continue into primary level. The next stage in education should be value system – respect for others, treat others as equals, share with others, be fair, put in effort in anything one does, have self esteem, love others unconditionally, be compassionate, be sensitive to other cultures, be accountable to oneself and to the society. This second stage should come in about four years of age. Then in the next stage, starting about five years, a child should be taught to read and write and do math. If we follow this system, I am sure we will have a generation that will make us proud, help the human race to progress in a balanced way. I am looking forward to implementing such a system of education!

Redressal


Click above to raise complaints
of caste discrimination against Dalit students.

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