I was lucky enough to make my first trip in a new job last month which saw me travel to the charming and effervescent South India. As we drove through the arid terrain of Tamil Nadu in the dry season I struggled to spot groups of people or areas that looked the least bit inhabited. Upon asking why the region was so quiet, I was told by a local staff member that weather conditions in the area had become so dry that village members were only able to live in their homes during the 2-3 month period when their land was arable. In these communities, only 1 harvest per year is possible and at other times villagers board up their homes and drift to the larger cities to complete day labourer work. As you can imagine, there are all kinds of dangers associated with this type of migration; exploitation, discrimination and child labour amongst some of these.
I closed my eyes and reflected on how lucky I was to have the ability to drive in, and then out of these villages and continue on with my own privileged life. What a sad thought that is…
My next destination was the breathtakingly striking hill station in Kodaikanal. We were lucky enough to wind up the hills as the sun was setting which painted the sky an amazing shade of pink and highlighted the duality of the harshness and utter beauty of this mountainous terrain.
The project site itself is a technical institute which provides alternative education opportunities for children with disabilities, alongside a vocational training centre which skills young adults with disabilities to produce eco-friendly products to serve the local hospitality industry. This facet of the institute’s work provides the opportunity for these young adults to obtain a source of income generation thereby allowing them to take a more active role in dictating the direction of their own lives. As I wondered through the halls of this place, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed.
In a section at the back of the building, women from the community who have been trained as local health workers interact with young children with celebral palsy and provide daily physical rehabilitation treatments. These children’s muscles need to be stretched out in order to promote heightened mobility however I can only imagine the type of pain that this involves. While I was present a child, most probably under 3 years old, was wailing in agony as a result of these exercises. The effect it had on me was sheer heartbreak at watching this child suffer, but also remembering that it was for his best in the long term. What an oddity it is, and that life is in general which somehow in each situation allows us to suffer in order to achieve our betterment.
After the institute, we embarked on some home visits with the local women who have been funded under the project to become Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) workers. We visited two families of children with intellectual disabilities which I will never forget. As I looked into the eyes of their mothers, mere teenagers themselves I saw a yearning for answers, but at the same time a glimpse of hope which was being directed towards me. In these rural communities, birthing a child with a disability into this world is envisioned as being a curse. In many cases, families of children with disabilities are shunned, ostracised and are excluded from local community life.
As I interacted with these particular parents however, I started to understand that by raising their awareness against these superstitions, allowing them a place alongside CBR workers towards their children’s development, their attitudes had shifted. This had in turn influenced those of their local community and by mainstreaming these children into the local government schools, equipping teachers with adapted learning modules and exposing other children to their ability to learn alongside them; generational attitudinal change was occurring.
I walked away from these children still wondering about their futures, living in abject poverty is no precursor for quality of life. However, by raising their own standards toward what they are capable of and eliminating the barriers towards their participation in society, I could at least leave knowing that they would no longer be socially handicapped because of their disability. Their lot in life was no longer determined by this one element and ongoing support would allow for the basic opportunities that all human beings in spite of creed, caste, ethnicity, gender or disability are deserving of.
I will always remember my experience in Kodai and the effect it had on me. Yes I am a development worker who operates on a daily basis within the disability inclusive space; technically I should be used to these circumstances. But I am glad to know that I am continuously able to connect with every person I encounter first and foremost as a human being and that these experiences still move me emotionally. This is, and always has been about more than a job for me. I am humbled, privileged and truly blessed to continue having these experiences with people who change me, and my life, just as much as my interventions change their own.