They say that a great teacher makes all the difference in a person’s life. In the case of mentally challenged children, this holds especially true. A special educator not only teaches them alphabets and numbers but also plays the role of a friend, a disciplinarian, a mentor and surprisingly often, a paramedic.
One such person who has selflessly dedicated herself to the task of educating and uplifting mentally challenged children is Sandhya Deorukhkar, fondly known as ‘Didi’. In 1981, she founded the institute ‘Seva Sadan Dilasa’ in Pune which works towards this cause and received the National Award to Teachers for 2004 at the hands of late President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.
This month, BnP talks to Mrs. Deorukhkar about her phenomenal work in the field of special education and the role that languages play in it.
What inspired you to establish a school for the mentally challenged?
Before becoming a full-time teacher, I was a journalist. However, I did not particularly enjoy covering gory stories. An interview with Vijay Merchant, the famous cricketer and philanthropist who worked for the blind and handicapped, proved to be the turning point in my life. I felt my work should make a real difference to the society and also be fulfilling. I thus enrolled myself for a B.Ed. in special education.
But the real struggle began after the course ended. As a housewife with two young kids, I had to overcome practical obstacles and my own self-doubts. I sought help from existing schools to rent me space for a special school. Thus in 1981, ‘Seva Sadan Dilasa’ started as a non-profit undertaking. With 40 children we began taking classes in the dining area of the hostel. Friends and family would help out and lend us school equipment and toys. Fortunately, the school won a government grant in its second year itself, thus enabling us to hire a team of professional special educators and therapists.
When it comes to mentally challenged children, what kind of a school curriculum are we talking about?
A class typically has children with different kinds of disorders like autism, down syndrome, epilepsy, dyslexia etc. Due to biological defects, they may not understand the importance of being properly dressed or conducting themselves. While regular schools would start with the alphabet, we have to start with hygiene and discipline. Since each child has different needs based on their medical condition, we cut out an Individualised Education Programme (IEP) for each of them. We teach them the basics like language and mathematics.
We know that disorders like Autism severely impact the language faculties of the child. So does this language deficiency hinder the process of learning?
Yes, it does. Most of the children that we work with have low IQ levels and this affects their comprehension. So the teacher needs to be particularly creative and spontaneous to make sure that she get her point across to the children in any way possible. Body language, gestures and signs play a very vital role as well. Secondly, many of these children also have deformities which cause speech problem. The children are unable to communicate even if they have a lot to say. So yes, it is a huge hindrance and needs to be handled delicately.
Can speech therapists help them out here?
Yes. Speech therapists primarily help to enrich the vocabulary of mentally challenged children. The focus is also on exercises that strengthen the muscles of the mouth which are weak due to their medical condition. For example, a child is made to blow rice flakes in a plate as strongly as possible. While it is entertaining for the child to watch the shower of rice flakes, it is actually a very good exercise to gain motor control of the mouth. Such activities eventually help them in articulating words better.
Have these children ever showed interest or aptitude in acquiring a second language?
No, not really. Mastering their mother tongue is a challenge in itself. So learning a second or a foreign language comes later. But we do make it point to introduce basic English words like “please,” “sorry,” “thank you,” etc. to them. This helps them integrate better with the world. I would like to add here that teaching them computers has also worked very well because it exposes them to a world that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
What are the other kinds of support used to aid their comprehension?
It is imperative for teachers to bring creativity to the lessons. Since the children do not always understand language, we often use sounds to teach them the meaning of different things like rivers, birds, telephones, vehicles etc. Sometimes sign language helps in teaching emotions. We also have to baby talk at times in order to connect with them at their level. The reward system works wonders too. Since their motor co-ordination is weak, regular physiotherapy sessions are conducted for muscle strengthening.
On a different note, you have also translated a book into Marathi – Azad Hind Senesamavet: Brahmadesh Te Japan. Can you tell us something about that?
Reading about a variety of subjects is easily my favourite hobby. When I read the autobiography of Air Commodore Ramesh Benegal, it left a deep impact. I was thrilled to accept the offer of translating his work into Marathi. Benegal’s book was a riveting wartime account which involved many technical and battle terms unknown to me. It was a challenge getting everything precisely right, but I thoroughly enjoyed translating it.