When someone says they were married at 16, you’ve already started thinking of not so pleasant outcomes that would determine the course of the person’s life. Even the most optimistic ones, would picture this person’s life nothing more than happy.
Dr. Shubhada is an outlier. She was married at 16, started a school for special children, ‘Bhandavya’ at 21 and has been running it for 28 years now. She’s a celebrated person in her field with 19 National awards and 3 state awards for her work and papers in the field of education. She also has a PhD in special education, a degree, only a handful of people in India have. She was awarded for her paper on education in this field by late Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1991 and was also awarded by late Dr. Abdul Kalam in 2005 for one of her papers.
“I started my career with teaching at the Kumaran School in Bengaluru. There were children with learning problems who were academically weak in the class. I had an inclination towards such children in the class and wanted to help them somehow”, she says. “I hence did a few courses on learning disability, special education, developing interests in these children. I wanted to be innovative and I knew no school management would permit experimental learning, that’s how I thought I should be on my own.”
Thus ‘Bhandavya’ was born. The school that aims to integrate mildly disabled children into the mainstream. “The very first challenge was the profession itself. Teaching was no more colourful, or seen as lucrative or attractive, especially working with special children.” But her inclination and calling made her even more determined to work with special children and carve out a new path.
She broke all stereotypes and made sure that motherhood didn’t slow her down. After her three children were born, she started studying and got four degrees – BA, B.Ed, M.A and a PhD! “I developed slowly with my school. I was confronting challenges. Whenever I came to know, I was not well equipped, I went in for courses. In this way, I learnt more and developed the school and the methodology for children with special needs.”
“It’s not a new kind of school, but it’s a different kind of school”, says Dr. Shubhada. “I’m trying to integrate childen with mild mental retardation, autism, low vision, many neurological diseases, physical handicaps with regular children. It’s an experimental school”. She tells us why exactly the school is experimental, “What holds good for one child does not hold good for another child. We have to keep on exploring till we understand what the child has chosen as his path for development and then build on that. It’s a lot of trial and error.”
The school adopts the curriculum for mainstream schools and then makes it flexible to adapt to the needs of special children. At Bhandavya, things that might be extremely basic for regular school going children and don’t come naturally to special children are also taught – eating habits, toilet habits, self-help, expression, and ultimately academics. Teachers don’t teach a class, they teach a child. Dr. Shubhada sees the assessment reports and collects the baseline data about the child from the parents and then starts working with the child. “We identify the problem areas, it could be speech, self-help, behaviour, etc, we design individual education plan for each child.”
The larger aim is integration and inclusion. “Brushing them up, providing them equal opportunities, sensitising the society and the government about this kind of integration is what we work towards”.
Disabilities are usually put in three broad categories – mild, moderate and profound. Dr. Shubhada adds, “Children who have mild disabilities are often denied admission to normal schools and parents don’t want to send them to a special school because of the taboo, because they feel that they will be branded and for other societal reasons. So my school is a boon for them because it is an integrated school dealing with mild cases only.”
Some students who have graduated from 10th std are sent for vocational trainings and to companies to understand life situations and work culture. “Society has to come forward and give them small jobs.”
Bhandavya has about 11 teachers and 55 students. The school works with the families as well. “Teaching a child is almost teaching a family. With a special child, there are so many things we have to take care of and help the family understand. We educate them even about home management. Emotional disturbances are also there in the family, especially the mothers are affected the most. We meet the parents every Saturday and counsel them.”
Bhandhavya, in Sanskrit means ‘to want to have a relationship’. She adds, “I wanted the school to be able to have a relationship with parents and the society and hence the name came about.”
Dr. Shubhada works almost 365 days a year. She runs evening classes in the school – spoken English, communication, and stitching classes for women. Bhandhavya also has a Mother’s club and a club of the girls from the school who are in their late teens. “We design clothes, make sarees, paint dupattas, stitch bags, and design a lot of kitchen items”. Every year, they showcase all the work at their show called “Vastrabaran”.
“We sell all these products and mobilise funds. I collect nominal fee from my students, but it is not enough to meet all the needs. My expenditure is about 1.5lakhs a month, including rent, salaries and snacks for children but it is almost impossible to meet the financial pressure.”
“I don’t have any support from the government, central or state.” Her own children help her financially every month to keep running the school. “I want to give the children at Bhandavya better facilities and openings, but I don’t have the means for it.”
Dr. Shubhada wrote to late Dr. Kalam during his term as president about a grievance she had with the state government. Late Dr. Kalam summoned both the parties to the Rashtrpati Bhavan. During the conversation, he was so impressed with Dr. Shubhada that he asked for an Integrated Education Development(IED) cell to be setup in the central government, Dr. Shubhada being the chairperson of it. Unfortunately, his term got over by then and things didn’t work out.
“Married at 16, my life could have been very different. But my husband is the man behind all of this. It is not only support, it is only with the strength he gives me and the dedication he has that I’m able to do something. My take home salary is nothing, but he appreciates my efforts.“
“It can be a very thankless job. People who did trainings and special education courses with me. When I started my school, they just had some small counselling units and now they’re making good money”. Dr. Shubhada also tells us that there is a lot of corruption in the field of special education, fake institutions are by the dozen. “They get some departments to sanction money to them as well! Some places only have letterheads and no schools and yet, they have money from the government and corporates.”
She often gets offers from schools offering her a high paying job with benefits and for a moment, “I know that I’m destined to do what I’m doing and I whatever little I can do for these children keeps me going. There is no joy beyond working with these children.” Dr. Shubhada says that the biggest worry for parents of special children is who will take care of their child after them. “Our biggest success is when a special child can lead his/her life independently and comfortably in the society. Every child rehabilitated is a huge victory.”
On a parting note, she urges the government to give reservation to the disabled kids in regular schools. She believes the impact will be significant.
Just 3 or 5% is not a big number. Inclusion and integration not only helps a special child become well rounded and accepted, it will give perspective to normal children as well, and they will come out as better human beings
Despite almost three decades of unrelenting work, she still says, “It is my small humble effort and I will continue to do this.”