Independent Appeal: School for disabled fights uphill battle against locals' prejudice

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The Independent Online

Some of the children are shunned by their parents, convinced that the disabilities they bear are evidence of sin or wrong-doing. Others are too much of a burden, either physically or financially. Some of them simply have no parents.

And yet this small classroom, so replete with stories of tragedy and sadness, is actually overflowing with laughter and smiles wide, happy smiles and infectious laughter that bounces off the walls and the bare concrete floor. The children here in this small, simple room say very little, at least very little that makes a great deal of sense. Their ability to communicate verbally is limited to a few words and yet spend a just few moments in this classroom in the southern Indian town of Srivilliputtur and it is apparent that wonders are being performed with these children who but for the intervention of one man would likely be living very different lives.

"There are many problems they would face going to other schools. The main is the toilet issue. They do not want to carry the children to the toilet," says Ignatius Amalraj, the founder of the project for these mentally and physically disabled children, in the state of Tamil Nadu. "There are also people who believe it is a result of sin. They don't like to live with [the children] or be close to them."

Mr Amalraj was inspired to start helping the children by the birth of his sons, David and Philip, in 1990. Philip was born with cerebral palsy. Mr Amalraj said he confronted huge difficulties in trying to get assistance for his son and to have him accepted in a mainstream school. At the time, he was operating the Social Development and Education Trust, a centre to help youngsters from tribal communities in the Srivilliputtur area, but he was also thinking about ways to help disabled children. Four years ago the trust, known as SDETland, started a three-pronged project to help the disabled. The project is supported by International Children's Trust, one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

First off is the day-care programme, which runs five days a week at two locations. It provides basic care and physical therapy for almost 60 children. Divided into three groups depending on the extent of their disabilities, the children have the attention of a full-time teacher for each group. Meals are made from food grown on the centre's farm.

The second challenge is to confront the prejudices against disability that exist within the children's families. It is no easy task. The centre's staff use street theatre as well as one-on-one sessions with parents to point out the scientific and medical issues surrounding disability. Mr Amalraj believes the area's poverty, and remoteness, has led a local incidence of disability higher than India's average of 3 per cent. "One reason is the ignorance of health issues, the other is intermarriage," he says.

The third area of the charity's work is to persuade local schools to take disabled students, to provide facilities such as ramps and to try and break down superstitions. It is an uphill battle. As Mr Amalraj knows from his experience with his son Philip, the authorities are not quick to change.

Later that afternoon I met Philip at the SDETland building in Srivilliputtur. He is a charming 17-year-old enrolled in a mainstream school. We stand a while watching his father play with the children, Philip's face beaming with pride. "He is very good with the children," he says.