“Vidhyalay mein photography aur videography karna sakht mana hai.”
“Vidhyalay mein phone silent mode mein rakhe.”
It is these two signs that greet you as you enter RMKM’s campus. The organization works for children and adults with physical/mental disabilities and this is just one of the ways they go out of their way to care and protect them.
Dealing with special children can be extremely challenging. As I learnt when I was introduced to RMKM’s world over the two days I spent with the organisation. Children talking to themselves, another smiling away in his own world, another screaming away in absolute anger at everything he sees or everyone who passes him – are common sights that greet you at their Ajmer-based campus. My two days here also moved by heart to no end – in the smile my handshake would bring to a special child or the excitement with which a partially-disabled helper would guide me around the campus.
Located at a 45-minute drive from city of Ajmer, RMKM was registered back in 1987. Its name only symbolizes its initial activity – that of providing relief to victims of the 1975 flash floods. Post-relief work, the organization set up SHGs and also supported HIV/AIDs victims, in addition to its work with the disabled.
My visit started off with an introduction to their inclusive school. In an interesting anecdote, Mr. Rakesh Kaushik, shared with me how the school initially started off as one for disabled children only but later opened up to regular kids too. When run as a separate school, the RMKM team realized that society continued to treat these children as “separate.” Instead of looking at the abilities they had developed on passing out of school, they considered them pagal (mad) as they had attended the pagal bachon ka school (school for mad children).
“The reverse inclusion was a big step we took to make our children inclusive members of society,” he says. Regular children from very poor families were brought in to attend the school too. The idea was double fold – to educate children who were anyway being denied an education, as efforts were being made to make the disabled children more inclusive members of society. Of course, this came with its own set of challenges. Many folks thought that disabilities (which they referred to as madness!) was contagious and would affect their kids too!
The approach adopted by the inclusive school is very thoughtful. Based on ability (rather than age), regular kids are grouped together with those with mild disabilities; and those with severe disabilities are grouped together. The inclusive students follow an academic curriculum; activities of daily living (wearing clothes, tying shoelaces, oiling and combing one’s hair) form the focus for the severely disabled. The purpose is to make the severely disabled independent. In order to do so, they are undergo pre-primary, primary, secondary, pre-vocational, then vocational training. These are the guidelines set by the Functional Assessment Checklist Programme (FACP).
Rakesh shared with me how immense peer learning happens in the inclusive lot – between the children who are disabled and those who aren’t. At an early age itself, regular kids learn how to be around and accept those with disabilities; in the long run, helping make them better people! Coming from someone (i.e. me) who has visited over 10 schools that work for disabled children, and is yet uncomfortable around special children, I think this is a great move! But at the same time, I had to ask how this impacts learning/progress (especially of those without disabilities). It was explained – those in the inclusive classes are not extreme cases, so their learning happens at a slightly slower pace, which is manageable by the teachers and acceptable to the parents.
It is also for this reason that the class size has intentionally been limited to 8-10 students. The children sit in a semi-circle, facing the blackboard, so that the teachers can give each child enough attention (many children’s hand literally needs to be held, given their conditions). In one classroom, I noticed a child who could not bend completely to write, had been given a special desk; in another a child had been tied with a dupatta to his chair as his constant movements hurt him as well as distract the entire class.
As I went from classroom to classroom, I was more and more impressed at the detailed thought behind each process. For example, before admissions, every child is first assessed to understand what standard/training they would be most suited for. These assessments continue on a quarterly basis and the results are proactively shared with parents. In another example – many a times, the RMKM team has faced extreme resistance from new children. Not comfortable with the new setting, it gets difficult for both the staff (and sometimes even their parents themselves) to get them to attend school. The organization has thus set up a resource room, which is more like a play-cum-initiation room. Done up in bright colors with children’s artwork on the walls, the children get accustomed to attending school through an activity they enjoy – playing. As the environment gets familiar and they get comfortable, they are gradually shifted into the regular classrooms.
In 2014, RMKM got permission to extend their school till the 8th standard, from the previous 5th standard. Their first 6th standard batch is currently studying; as they complete the next two years, the school will see its first 7th and 8th standard batch too. Post the 8th standard (i.e. 5th standard, till last year), children from the mixed lot are admitted into a neighbouring school. Vocational training for those with severe disabilities include woodcraft, paper bag/cup making, stationary making, cushion cover making and appliqué file folder making. Items produced are sold by the organization at exhibitions; they also help place the vocationally trained. It was heartening to learn that over 50 of their children have gone on to work as gardeners, in packaging units, as office assistants etc.
This made me wonder about the number of children being helped. There are 150 students at the school currently; of these, only 24 come from families, which can afford to pay the school fees. Parents of the others are daily labourers, agricultural workers, MNREGA workers, thelawalas, and some belong to the Gurjar community and practice animal husbandry. To prevent fees from being an obstacle, all costs are sponsored for such children. Yet RMKM insists that they pay at least a part of the bus fees as they believe even that small amount will go a long way in families valuing the service they provide.
As we sat down to discuss the organisation’s founding and growth, we were approached by a very courteous Pravin. Pravin, it turns out, is an ex-student of RMKM itself; he has completed the office assistant’s course and the paper bag training. His cognitive abilities being highly under developed, he is neither able to keep time nor count money. The organization has employed him to serve tea-water to both staff and guests (which, I noticed, he takes great pride in doing!) as well as other odd tasks around the campus.
Similar is the story of the caretaker who currently maintains cleanliness at RMKM’s hostel. Set up in 2009 with donations from the Embassy of Japan, the hostel can accommodate up to 30 students. A basic yet clean set up, it caters to children from other districts of Rajasthan (where special schools do not exist). For the benefit of parents who are too protective/ scared to leave their children in RMKM’s hands for the first time, two rooms have been set up; newly-admitted children stay with their parents till both parties get comfortable with the environment at RMKM’s.
RMKM also insists that parents get familiar with the day-to-day activities of the children; so that the same routine can be followed when the children are back home during the holidays (even 10 days of a changed routine is enough for the children to forget and the staff then needs to re-teach things).
At the end of the day, when I retired to my room, I learnt that RMKM also offers training in special education. My room adjoined the girls’ hostel; the girls were either doing the year-long Diploma in Education (Special Education) or the two-year Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI)-approved Diploma in Vocational Rehabilitation.
The next day, I learnt from Rakesh himself that training began as a result of a meeting with the then Chief Minister; where he advised NGOs to step in to help sensitize Government school teachers to children with disabilities. RMKM thus started a 3-month long Foundation Course ( 14 days of training, followed by field work, and exams in the last 21 days). It also helped the organization overcome the shortfall they faced when it came to hiring quality teachers.
The next day, I also drove down 30 kms to meet a beneficiary from their goat-rearing project. Returning from a long day of work on the field, she introduced us to her pet goat – which she had received from RMKM. Given to widows like her, the goat helps meet the milk requirement at home; selling the goat’s kids (annually) also brings in about Rs. 10,000. I was quite surprised to learn that giving the goat is not a simple one-time activity. Firstly, efforts are put in to identify those most in need of the same. Then, they are educated on bringing up the goats well – from giving them only clean water to drink to ensuring they are well-fed.
En route to my next destination – Jaipur – as the bus drove away from Ajmer, the importance this organization plays became clear. It is the only school in the district (of Ajmer) that caters to the disabled. The city has a school for the hearing impaired; as well as another for the visually-impaired. But anyone with Cerebral Palsy/Autism (or any other disability) must find their way to RMKM…