Mumbai’s Urmi Foundation is helping children with developmental disabilities get access to the education they deserve – and they are brilliantly doing so, against all odds.
Ten-year-old Gautam is a special child who did not know what a school looked like. What it means to get new books, make new friends, share secrets with them, get a thrill from learning something new – he had no idea about these things. His parents, apparently, were ashamed of him and never even thought of sending him to school.
This was when Urmi Foundation came in, counselled the parents, explained to them what special education actually means, and opened up a completely new world for their child. Gautam eventually started school for the first time this June.
Based in Mumbai, Urmi Foundation works with children with developmental disabilities who are from low income households. This basically means working on the educational and social needs of children who are living with autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and other such conditions. In its three-year long journey, dedicated to integrating this section of the Mumbai population with mainstream society through adequate resources and policy support, the Foundation has come across many children like Gautam.
According to the founder of Urmi, Sonalee Shyamsundar, the Foundation researched 18 special schools located in different suburbs of Mumbai, operating under the Brihanmumbai Municipal Coportion (BMC), before developing a model that could serve their needs better.
Once BMC agreed to let them collaborate with the schols, Urmi Foundation ran a pilot program with a school in Chembur in 2012. This year they have adopted four additional schools as well.
The Foundation’s work begins by assessing the needs of the schools and the special children they are helping. These assessment forms are authorised by the National Institute for Mentally Handicapped (NIMH). Based on the assessments, the next step involves designing the syllabus and zeroing in on the teaching and learning materials (TLM) and other teaching tools to provide the children with the best resources and a suitable learning environment.
“We also implement art and occupational therapy which involves working on areas like eye-hand coordination, hyperactivity, and physical independence. Behaviour modification activities are also implemented,” explains Sonalee.
But one of the major challenges the Foundation faces on almost a daily basis is the attitude of the parents of children with special needs – parents who are ashamed of their children, unsure about how society will treat them, and also some who do not wish to invest anything in the education of a child who might not help them in any way once he/she grows up. As this issue can often not be addressed from within the BMC schools, the Urmi team visits various slums in Mumbai in person. Here, team members try to counsel parents on what special education is, how it works, and why it is necessary for their kids. They try and convince the parents to enrol their kids in school and the Foundation helps then with the admission process as well.
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However, not all children can make it to school. There are many who have immense difficulty in movement and require assistance at all times. For children like them, Urmi Foundation has come up with Project 100, wherein they plan to teach 100 such kids from the slums of Chembur and Dharavi by going to their homes.
As of now, Sonalee is crowd sourcing funds to kickstart the project.
“It will be more like tuition classes, where trained professionals will be going to their homes to teach them. But it will be a form of therapy as well, which can make them physically independent.”
Sonalee says she was motivated to start the Urmi Foundation after returning from a vacation in Sri Lanka where she saw the people treat special children with tremendous love and care. This made her think of the situation back home in India where the stigma attached to any kind of developmental disability is so huge that it is cruel and often dangerous.
Talking about the numerous children she has worked with, Sonalee mentions Bharti who was a special child in the school they piloted with. “Today, Bharti is employed with Urmi Foundation as a member of the staff, where she looks after general administration activities at schools.”
However, success stories are not easy to come by. Sonalee recalls going to Dharavi for a community visit and finding a child name Rajesh locked inside a room. The team realised soon that he was a child with special needs, so they enquired about him among the neighbouring homes, where the walls literally adjoin each other and privacy is hard to achieve. Shockingly, no one around even had a clue about the existence of this three-year-old child. This was clear evidence of the social stigma attached to children with disabilities.
“That one incident (with Rajesh) had a huge impact on the team and changed everything. We would like to expand to cover the maximum number of BMC special schools in the future and also conduct community awareness programs for these children,” concludes a hopeful Sonalee.
Urmi Foundation, which has an office located in the slums itself, is determined to help Rajesh and all other children like him. Their nine-member team includes special educators, doctors and speech therapists who go to work with tremendous zeal and enthusiasm every day.