Meet Dr Amitabh Mehrotra, who defeated cerebral palsy to start a school for children with disabilities in LucknowShinjini Chowdhury
SPARC India is on a mission to provide education, healthcare and other basic opportunities to physically-disabled people.
Born in 1965 with cerebral palsy, Amitabh Mehrotra encountered the deprived opportunities and discrimination that the physically disabled face in our society. His sister, Nidhi, recalls the obstacles he had to brave to get admission in a school, even though he was an intelligent child. Since he faced difficulty in writing, his sisters spent hours copying notes for him. Games periods meant sitting out and feeling isolated from his classmates.
Dr Mehrotra, however, had more resolve and optimism than could be beaten out of him. With the support of his parents, especially younger sisters, Nidhi and Kalika, he dreamt of making life better for other differently-abled people. “Bhaiya and our mother would often talk about this. She would tell him that his situation should not bring him down, but should strengthen him to help others like him. Our mother was the inspiration,” says Nidhi.
A courageous beginning
In November 1996, he founded School for Potential Advancement and Restoration of Confidence, otherwise known as SPARC India. The organisation received its first grant from ActionAid, and began work in Khadra, a minority-populated region near the old, walled city of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Within a year, and in collaboration with the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, it brought eight villages of Barabanki district under its purview.
Today, SPARC India works in 40 villages of Barabanki, and has positively impacted thousands of PWDs, with guidance and assistance with medical aid, life skills and education. “SPARC-India is an issue-based organisation that works for betterment of lives of PWDs,” Dr Mehrotra says, as he speaks enthusiastically of the vision he has for his NGO. “My brother is a foot soldier,” adds Nidhi, who is equally committed to the cause, and has started a crowdfunding campaign for this initiative.
Education, employability and beyond
SPARC India established Jyoti Kiran School in 2003 for children with cerebral palsy, and provides them with education and therapeutic services for their overall development. Presently, the school has 55 children enrolled. These children are affected by cerebral palsy or other forms of disability, such as speech and hearing impairment, or mental retardation.
The school offers skill development, physiotherapy, counselling sessions, workshops for siblings of disabled children, parent support groups, speech therapy, music classes, theatre training and other such ways to help children with disabilities live an independent and confident life. The aim is to increase its reach and provide inclusive education to 500-600 children, both PWDs and physically healthy, in the coming years.
Since 2007, SPARC India pathshalas or village schools have been facilitating leadership training to PWDs. The organisation’s community-based rehabilitation centre received support from CORDAID, CRY and others. The CBR programme began in urban slums of Lucknow, but soon reached out to rural slums of Barabanki district. Its activities include medical intervention, camps for need assessment of PWDs, setting up forums, and establishing resource centres for patients of cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
SPARC India also runs Uday Viklang Manch, which are disabled people’s organisations across several districts of Uttar Pradesh. Artha Astha is the NGO’s action research centre for the condition of children with disabilities, formed in 2012. Through the Livelihood Resource Centre for PWDs in Lucknow, established in 2014 in association with Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, SPARC India proposes to offer 3-month-long training and certification courses on IT/ITES/BPO, hospitality, retail, garments, banking and insurance.
These courses are to be accredited by reputed organisations of the respective fields, ensuring employability for PWDs after completion of the course. The LRC houses facilities to train five batches of 70 people each. After the end of training, a job fair will be organised for the certificate-holders. Upon placement, SPARC India plans to keep itself updated on the progress of its students and to offer necessary support to employers.
A Vision for the Future
SPARC India’s educational centres continue to help many disabled children and their families to face the physical and societal obstacles that come their way on a daily basis. But, it is not only about education or healthcare. The vision is for a better future and a broader horizon.
Since 2008, the organisation has been campaigning for awareness towards disability and has been lobbying for rights of PWDs. As the job market grows more competitive, the need for skill development has also grown urgent. With that in mind, a vocational and placement centre was initiated to address employment challenges that the physically disabled face. It conducts surveys to bring more people into its ambit, organises sensitising workshops, offers training courses, and attempts to ally with corporations to ensure sustainable employment opportunities.
More than 20 years since its inception, SPARC India continues strong with a team of 30 full-time employees. Dr. Mehrotra muses, “’Social entrepreneur’ is a grand term, but it is also problematic. There is struggle.” But, his spirit is nothing short of inspiring.