'Children will always be children': Tamahar's journey into supporting kids with special needs
“There’s a large amount of money being spent on care-giving rather than empowering people to become as independent as possible,” says Vaishali Pai, Founder & Director of Tamahar. The ‘people’ she’s referring to are children with special needs.
Through her organisation, she’s opened two centres in Bangalore and Pali dedicated to educating kids with physical or mental disabilities, and supporting their families.
“We believe that children need to be taught to think, internalise and then respond and remember. This is true for children with special needs, too. It’ just a matter of asking them questions in the manner they will understand, and then give enough time for them to respond,” she explains.
When Vaishali arrived in Bangalore 25 years ago from Mumbai, she’d just got her masters degree in Occupational Therapy. “I started working in The Spastic’s Society of Karnataka at Indiranagar. I used to live 19 km away, and I had to change three buses to reach work. In those journeys, I happened to meet several families who were having a hard time travelling long distances with their children, who couldn’t walk or move properly,” she recalls.
It was then that she decided to start a programme for sub-urban and rural areas in North West Bangalore, called Tamahar. And she did it with a clear agenda in mind: “I believe there has to be a centre within 7 km radius in the urban areas and 15-20 km radius in the rural areas.”
“When we work with the children, we appeal to their brain as a whole, not in parts just to either teach them movements or words.” she says.
Along with the regular interventions with various therapies, recreational activities are at the core of Tamahar’s teachings. “Learning indoor and outdoor games is a part of the curriculum, the idea being that they understand play activities of others. Even if they may not be able to physically participate (for some children), they can derive pleasure from watching others,” she says.
Great part of the problems children with special needs face concerns their role in family and society. They have programmes specifically for the mothers, siblings and other relatives: “We intervene with the extended family and educate them regarding the condition of the child if the need arises,” says Vaishali. Their fundamental belief is that it’s easier for society to include disabled people, rather than considering them unable to fit into normality.
The focus on all those who participate in the children’s life is crucial. Vaishali tells us that “many parents want their child to become ‘normal,’ but this is not an option.” Nonetheless, she continues, “Parents are the best therapists once they understand what their children need.”
The main requirements any team member must meet are love for children and love for learning. “Educational qualification is an added bonus, not a must! Capacity and quality of work is more important than knowledge,” says Vaishali. Only specific work domains like yoga therapy, clinical psychology, music therapy, physiotherapy or organic farming require qualifications.
“We charge each family a minimum amount as we believe that free services are not taken seriously, and we believe in our services,” says Vaishali. The charges depend on the income of the family and on the distance they travels.
The centres are supported entirely by donations, and most of the materials used in the school daily are donated by Vaishali’s family. She says it’s challenging, but nothing is impossible. If, financially, the centres are not self-sustainable yet, administratively, they are completely independent. “I’ve already stepped back from daily tasks and some level of management,” says Vaishali, pointing out that Tamahar’s organisation is solid enough to proceed regardless of who is heading it.“Our work has just begun, and we have to cater to the vast majority of disadvantaged families that stay either in semi-urban areas or slums in big cities, or in Tier II, III cities or villages. So much raw human talent is wasted as these children do not get opportunities to develop and become productive citizens of the society,” she says.
It’s all an organic composition of different elements
There is nothing that Vaishali points out as exceptional in what she and her team do. “It’s impossible to say that every kid is the same, and that all of them should be treated equally. However, children will always be children, whether they are neuro-typical or with special needs.”