Volume 9 Issue 4 - May 01, 2012

Going beyond the usual

Traditionally restricted to very closed environments or straight jacketed vocational courses, people with developmental disabilities have hardly had a chance to think of anything beyond special schools. However, an initiative of Manovikas-I.G.N.O.U. Community College (M.C.C.) is giving them a chance to explore possibilities that were not open to them earlier. Though the going is anything but easy, a light seems to be visible at the end of the tunnel. Shilpi Ganguly of D.N.I.S. elaborates on the work being done by M.C.C. and how it is standing in good stead in the lives of students with developmental disabilities.

Historically speaking, even among the disability sector, the area of developmental disabilities is much misunderstood and neglected. Needless to say, opportunities for education and employment for persons with developmental disabilities have been far and few, with barely a handful of organisations working in this area. But with the disability movement gaining a stronger voice and with the ratification of United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (C.R.P.D.), the focus is gradually beginning to shift from visual and physical impairment to other areas like hearing and developmental impairments.

Traditionally, children with developmental disabilities have lived in very restricted environments. Their exposure to the world outside of the four walls of their homes has been mostly limited to special schools. The lack of integration into mainstream education and the absence of educational opportunities in the higher education sector have only strengthened the shackles that bind persons with developmental disabilities.

Over a period of time vocational training modules began to be developed to equip children and adults with developmental disabilities with life-skills that would help them lead a life of dignity. Unfortunately, this too was limited to making candles, agarbattis and such ‘vocational’ courses. The question being asked now is that is this enough for them to sustain their lives? If not, then what more can be done?

People with disabilities, especially developmental disabilities are perceived to be a burden with little hope of being financially independent. But there is now a glimmer of hope for them, as initiatives by certain organisations are beginning to show some results. The work of Manovikas-I.G.N.O.U. Community College (M.C.C.) is a case in point. A part of Manovikas Charitable Society (M.C.S.), Manovikas Community College collaborated with the Indira Gandhi National Open University (I.G.N.O.U.) in 2010 to start four certificate courses that would go beyond the traditional vocational training given to young adults with developmental disabilities. The four courses started are in the area of basic business, hospitality, retail management and office assistantship. Multiple intelligence tests are conducted and students are selected for the courses according to their abilities.

Indira Alok, Special Educator and Principal and Executive Director of Manovikas Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Research Centre, points out how there is no end to special education for persons with developmental disabilities. Students continue to go to special schools for years without making a transition from one stage to another. “At M.C.C. we try to send them or integrate them into mainstream education. We coordinate with schools for the admission of children with developmental disabilities and remain in touch with the school all year through,” says Alok.

Realising that even students who get integrated into mainstream schools or those who receive vocational training through M.C.S. need further training to lead a life of dignity and independence, M.C.C. was started. “For one year before starting the certificate courses at M.C.C. we researched on what to do and how to do it,” shares Alok. The final result was to approach I.G.N.O.U. and collaborate with them.

The technique of imparting training for these courses is different keeping in mind the needs of the students. More than 80 percent of the training is based on practical learning and is not theoretical or bookish in nature. Detailed guidelines are provided to instructors who come to train students for these courses. But special educators are also present in class, who later act as a bridge between the instructors and students as and when required. “Sometimes students are not able to understand all concepts in just one class. Then the special educators help in bridging the gap,” says Alok.

M.C.C. also helps students find internships during the training. While the internship is going on, a teacher or a volunteer from M.C.C. is always present with the student to facilitate their work in a different environment. There is a lot of grooming involved at this stage to prepare the students to take up jobs later.

Besides the internships, M.C.C. helps to place students at various mainstream organisations and earn a decent livelihood. For example, several students from M.C.C. have been placed in organisations like Haldiram, Barista, Café Coffee Day, Bajaj Pvt. Ltd. etc. M.C.C. does not tie up with employers or organisations, but volunteers from M.C.C. meet the Human Resource (H.R.) heads of different organisations with the resumes of students of M.C.C. and discuss employment opportunities for them. Basic sensitisation programmes are held on individual basis and regular feedback is taken from employers about the performance of students. They have even begun to get in touch with organisations outside Delhi to see if this model can be duplicated. M.C.C. would act as a guide and facilitator for scaling it up outside Delhi.

The rate of placement of students in jobs is roughly 70 percent, claims M.C.C.

When asked about their experience with employers by and large, Alok says, “People are at least ready to listen to us.” This, it seems, is indeed the case, at least with some. Says Puneet Varma, General Manager – Operations, Haldiram Snacks Pvt. Ltd., “We are as it is an equal opportunity employer and when Manovikas approached us for engaging some of their students with us and shared their background and their need to be included in society, we were more than willing to be part of it.”

This being the first time Haldiram has hired people with developmental disabilities, they undertook sensitisation programmes for the staff. Staff briefings were undertaken with emphasis on the needs, competency levels, mental and emotional outlook etc. of people with developmental disabilities. Attention was paid to ensure that they feel part of team as any other employee would and are not made to feel special. At the same time, care was taken to assign them work in line with their skills and abilities. “Manovikas team was quite helpful in this,” says Varma. “Our experience has been good so far. Although sometimes there are challenges in teaching a new skill, but with patience and perseverance they learn and adopt quite well. We need to have different parameters for judging their performance. What is important here is that we should be aware of their strengths,” he adds.

While there are encouraging examples, there is a lot of ground to be covered which has been left untouched due to historical neglect and stigma. Dr. Alok Kumar Bhuwan, Managing Secretary, Manovikas Charitable Society elaborates on how, according to him, there are two main aspects to the future of employment for persons with developmental disabilities – the social and the educational. While the educational aspect involves emphasis on more innovation and modalities to further the education of persons with developmental disabilities, the social aspect involves changing the basic mindset of people. There has to be acceptance from not just employers, but from parents and society too, of the fact that persons with developmental disabilities can be integrated into mainstream systems.

One example he quotes is that M.C.C. has had the resources to train 40 students since they started the four courses in January 2011 – that is, 10 students in each course – but they have only had 28 enrolled students so far. This according to him is partly because parents hesitate to send their children to college and then to work. “We have begun to tackle the front-end problems, but the back-end problem – that of changing the mindset – is a bigger challenge,” says Dr. Bhuwan.

Dr. Shanti Auluck, Director, Muskaan cautions that the challenge is actually even bigger than that. Because developmental disabilities encompass different kinds of disabilities, the complexities are far more. “What is most important is the degree of impairment,” says Dr. Auluck. Going by the experience of the Muskaan Work Centre, she points out that practical trainings do help to develop the general cognitive acumen of persons with developmental disabilities, but for those who are severely impaired, it is very difficult to find education and employment opportunities. It is easier to integrate borderline cases of developmental disabilities into mainstream systems.

Part of the answer perhaps lies in trying to empower the students by developing their self-esteem, says Dr. Bhuwan. “Because they are perceived to be useless, sometimes even by their families, their self-esteem is very low. Once you begin to develop that, you will see the potential peeping out.”

There may be light at the end of the tunnel after all.

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