Working for the disabled in the tribal district of Dahod, Gujarat

A Wikipedia article on “Dahod” will tell you that the town is a “model town”. This made me wonder why a colleague, who had visited Dahod earlier, advised me not to spend the night here but do a daylong visit and be off. But in hindsight, I realized that this was good advice.

Dahod is a small town in north-east Gujarat, close to the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border. Historically, it is the birthplace of the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who, it is said, had ordered his ministers to favor this town, as it was his birthplace. Also, Tatya Tope, the freedom fighter, is known to have absconded in Dahod.

Today, not much dots the town except for numerous pulse factories around. As I learnt from Mr. Yusufi Kapadia, Managing Trustee of the Dahod-based ( not just the town but the district too) Blind Welfare Council (BWC), Dahod is a tribal-rich area. A combination of poor eating habits and poor awareness is what makes the incidence of disability pretty high here. While talking about how the organisation was set up, I recall Mr. Kapadia saying that one of their first activities, back in 1980, was to give the disabled in the area disability certificates; they gave 6,000-7,000 certificates after their initial survey itself.

Getting off the Paschim Express at 6:15 am, little did I realize that the town continues to remain as sleepy through the day. Despite the historic significance, there aren’t many hotels there. Lucky for me that BWC has a few guest rooms on its three acre campus.

The organisation was set up in 1980 by Mr. Kapadia and seven others. Half of them being blind themselves, they truly understood how difficult it is for people with handicaps to live regular lives. They wanted to set up an institution that would cater not just to the blind, but to people with all kinds of disabilities. Through special education and training, the institute ensures that people with disabilities are able to do basic tasks (walking in unfamiliar areas, brushing, bathing etc.); once an individual grasps basic tasks and is able to live independently, they go a step further and train them in a vocational training skill to make them truly independent!

To accomplish this goal, their building thus houses a physiotherapy room, a special-sensory room, classrooms from standard 1-4, a computer training room and a paper-plate making room. There’s also a recording unit in which text books are converted to audio and shared amongst the students.

BWC is both a residential and non-residential school. It also offers an education only till class four (given the ability of its students); post which vocational training is offered. There are also separate classes for the hearing impaired.

Those whose families live within Dahod itself return to their homes at the end of the school day (4pm). Most of the residential students go home in the holidays, except for a few – like Hatim, a 20-year old Celebral Palsy orphan, whom the organisation adopted from the streets 3-4 years ago. Or Rajesh Maganbhai Harijan, who does not like going home as he does not get the same care and attention from his alcoholic parents that he gets at BWC. Despite his disability, he was smart enough to realize that the alcohol-induced environment back home is not a good one! Both Hatim and Rajesh have been trained to make paper plates at BWC’s in-house vocational training center.

Mr. Abbas shared with me that, “After thorough research, the National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation has identified over a dozen vocational training tasks that they believe people with disabilities can easily pick up.” These include carpentry, stitching, book binding, hand-made paper/soap production, amongst others. “We have adopted from this list,” he says. The organization’s next goal is to set up a vocational training workshop, on the latter part of their three-acre campus. This workshop will be manned by people with disabilities themselves and will offer structured training to them in skills like sewing, basic computers, candle making etc. Says Mr. Yusufi, “This vocational training workshop is my ultimate wish for BWC.”

What struck me the most as I walked across campus with Mr. Abbas was the happy smiles – from the caretakers to the teachers and not to forget the students themselves. Most children here are severely disabled so are unable to really communicate. Even if they are able to speak, it’s in broken Gujarati (which I do not know). But the affection displayed through their “Namastes” and handshakes is really something that will stay with me.

Whilst there, I pondered a lot on the impact BWC was making. How far would this education and training get them? But stories of children kept revealing how some had only begun training and education in their teens. Most have spent ignored childhoods simply because their families did not know how to treat special children. So if they are able to greet you, take care of their basic hygiene, and even go on to develop a vocational skill, it’s a BIG deal. And it really warms ones heart to hear a story like that of Huzefa Kundawala. After a year-long paper-plate training at BWC, Huzefa started making and selling paper plates from the corner of his father’s shop. His dad in fact took a loan to purchase the necessary machinery, which they are slowly paying off.

Kudos really to the BWC teachers and staff who work so patiently to ensure that these childrens’ development, though slow, is constant and progressing!

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