I have a distinct memory from my childhood, of my first experience with someone about my age who was a tad different from all the other kids I knew. She was a little girl I met at a family get-together; a distant cousin of mine. She looked four or five years old when I first saw her. I was about seven or eight. We were a big gang of children running around the house, doing what kids do, but this little girl sat on her mother’s lap the entire morning. She hadn’t learnt to eat on her own yet and she messed up her dress an awful lot while being fed. There were times when she would get up from her mother’s lap but her mother had to hold both her hands for the little girl to stand in her swaying manner. I couldn’t understand why no one had bothered to introduce us children to her. I wanted to know her name. I remember stealing glances at her and finding every chance I had to go into the living room, only to see her. I had no idea why she was the way she was and I distinctly remember being scared to ask any adult in the room whether she could play with us. I thought I’d get a beating for asking. I kept mum the whole time.
Once or twice every year, we’d have a family gathering where I’d spot this cousin, tucked away in a corner of somebody’s living room, or a hotel’s reception hall, growing bigger and taller, just like me. She spoke in sounds and she hadn’t still learnt to eat on her own. By now, I was a little older, but it was too odd to approach her after so many years of pretending that she did not exist. By the time I was 14-15 years old, in some banal unmemorable way this suspense had broken; I had come to know that she was “disabled”. No one really knew anything beyond that word.
Life went on. School was over and soon I had graduated. Work life took over even quicker with space for the occasional holiday to soothe the burning soul. On one such backpacking holiday in Europe, an incident changed the way I looked at the world forever. I saw a little boy at a park who immediately reminded me of my “disabled” cousin back home. Their mannerisms were almost identical, the only difference was that he was not sitting away in a corner of the garden, but had all the other children running around him, including him in their play. It suddenly hit me that I was an adult now and yet, had no knowledge or understanding of somebody with different needs. I still didn’t have the courage to approach somebody who was different from me.
This moment stayed with me for a while and fortunately for me many such moments steered my life in a way that I ended up working with children. The children at TULIPS and Saraswati Mandir School gave me the opportunity to understand that the world was made up of all kinds and each must be accepted for who they are. They taught me to be sensitive, compassionate, and humble. They taught me patience. They taught me that they didn’t need my sympathy. What the best education in the country couldn’t teach me, these children taught me.
When I think that it took me so many years to realize such a simple truth of life, it troubles me further to think of how many people live their entire lives not having even the tiniest opportunity to realize and experience this deep truth. Look at the way our streets and pavements are built, or how our office buildings and shopping malls are laid out. No ramps, no elevators, no handle supports, no audio-aid for the blind, the list can be endless – we just do not think of those with different needs. And how can we, if we haven’t ever been exposed to needs that are different from ours? If the engineer who built roadways had a friend with a physical disability in his classroom, he’d understand the necessity of alternate facilities to climb overhead bridges and subways. If the architect designing buildings had a friend with disability, he’d know the importance of ramps in buildings. And if the teacher had a partner in school who fidgeted all the time, he’d understand that the ‘special’ child in his class does not suffer from a disorder but just learns differently than others.
It all begins in school. And if school can be a place that teaches you sensitivity, compassion, and acceptance along with mathematics, history and science, our children will grow up to build a healthier society around them, not one that is intolerant, impatient and odd around those who are different from them.
Unfortunately, our children grow up without knowing or understanding any of this, because we tuck our ‘special’ children away from public eye. We believe that they need ‘extra’ care and support. But what they really need is for us to treat them equally, see them as just another being with their own sets of abilities and needs. This understanding of life is real education.
The world will be a better place if we learn to build shapes around people, instead of trying to make people fit in pre-designed shapes. And all I have to say is – it all begins in school.
The author is a certified ABT (arts based therapy) practitioner working in two special schools and one residential centre for children-at-risk in Mumbai. She also works at two BMC schools as a drama instructor and conducts teacher-training programmes across the city. She can be reached at email@example.com.