For our work at the Centre for the Advancement of Philanthropy (CAP), Madison and I were given the opportunity to look around the Jai Vakeel School for the Intellectually Challenged. I'll post more about my time India when I get a chance to stop and write it.
They say a society should be judged by the way it treats those whom it doesn't need to treat well. The plight of the poor, the disenfranchised, the elderly and the disabled are too often overlooked for no reason other than they simply make the rest of us feel uncomfortable. Nobody intentionally turns their back on another person simply because we feel they aren't worthy of our support. We ignore them because they remind us of our own mortality or how lucky we truly are to have our health and food to eat. Society so often ignores the needs of the disabled for no reason beyond that it would make us all feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable to be confronted with the fact that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. We limit involvement with them, worried that the experience will be a depressing one. We look the other way when we see them on the street because we fear what we might see or feel if we make eye contact. We, on some sub-conscious level, dehumanise them to justify our discomfort. What does that say about our society?
If I may say so myself, I consider myself to be a fairly accepting and tolerant person. I've been around people with disabilities before and, at least on a conscious level, I have no issues interacting with the handicapped. I would be lying, however, to say that I wasn't a little uncomfortable walking into the Jai Vakeel School for the Intellectually Disabled today. I felt the same apprehensions that I'm sure so many people would feel. How disabled are the children? Will I be able to interact with them? Will I leave feeling sad and sorry for them? I was afraid of being too confronted by what I saw.
The Jai Vakeel school is one of the largest and oldest not-for-profit organisations in Mumbai, dedicated to supporting the welfare and education of over 700+ intellectually disabled students with a variety of afflictions. A lot of the students have autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy or some other disability and many of the students have a combination of multiple issues. Jai Vakeel takes in disabled children, often from poor or disenfranchised backgrounds, and teaches them to become their very best, whatever that may be.
Jai Vakeel runs special education programs, designed to teach to the intellectual capacity of the students. Lessons range from simply developing the skills needed to pass a ball between classmates right through to a traditional classroom environment, where students are taught the same curriculum they might receive at any other school at a pace tailored to each individual. For some students, gaining the life skills to feed, wash and dress themselves might be the extent of what they learn. Others will leave with at least some high school education and make their own way in the world. Others still may stay on at the Institute, working in one of the many vocational centres.
These students do not simply cease to become students at a certain age, as in most schools. Jai Vakeel does not turn away any student who needs help and they do not evict any student who isn't ready to face the outside world. The youngest student at Jai Vakeel is 6 months but the oldest is 74. Many live at home with their parents while some live at the institute full time.
Jai Vakeel operates a number of programmes for students to learn a skill or trade that will help them either to find employment in the real world, or simply allow them to stay with the institute and do their part to earn their keep. In a tour of the Jai Vakeel school, I saw students making candles, food preserves, jewellery, incense sticks, gift bags, flower arrangements, envelopes and operating a range of industrial weaving machines, among many other trades.
These are not helpless individuals. One of the slogans for Jai Vakeel is “Do not look at their disabilities. Lets build on their abilities”, which I'll admit sounds a little corny but is incredibly true. It's easy to discount someone when their most noteworthy ability is the capacity to feed and dress themselves but that doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't mention the tireless work of the staff and volunteers of Jai Vakeel who helped them reach that point and it doesn't tell of the hundreds of tries and years of practice it took them to learn how to use a spoon. Have you ever worked that hard at learning anything in your entire life?
I think the thing that caught me most by surprise, however, was the fact that everybody I saw in Jai Vakeel seemed so happy just to be there. There was a smile on the face of nearly every student. The students love being there because they are kept busy and challenged and they receive the support and care they need that they simply wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. Not only was a tour of Jai Vakeel not the depressing experience I feared, it was positively uplifting. Jai Vakeel is not the only organisation that cares for disabled students in the world. It's probably not even the only organisation that cares for disabled students in Mumbai. I'm not telling anyone to go volunteer at a school like it or to donate to the school (although you definitely can if you want). If you take only one thing from reading this, take this. Our society is at a point where we can no longer justify averting our eyes when we see a disabled person on the street. The first step is to acknowledge that and to stop dehumanising our most vulnerable people.