Tata Trusts' pan-India initiative Parag is putting the focus on disability in children's literature to make it more inclusive and contextual, and help kids become more accepting of differently abled children.
Kittu is lost! His family has left him behind at a dhaba on the highway in the middle of nowhere. He is rescued by an ice-cream wala and suddenly, Kittu’s terrible, horrible day turns mad! Who would have thought that this middle-of-nowhere place would have a skate park?
The ice-cream seller’s daughter, Mad, is mad about skateboarding and now Kittu wants to zoom around on a skateboard, too! But can a boy with one leg who walks on crutches learn to skateboard? Is Kittu mad to even try?
Manya wants to be Shere Khan in her school play. The Jungle Book is her favourite film and she knows all the lines. She's sure she'll be a superb Shere Khan. But not everyone thinks so. Her classmate Rajat always makes fun of her stammer. Her English teacher thinks it is risky to let her get on stage; her principal seems to agree.
The more anxious Manya gets, the worse her stammer becomes. Will Manya lose her dream role? Can she overcome her fears and learn to roar?
Characters like Kittu and Manya — young specially abled children — find their way in story books, in children’s literature where these school students are treated as ‘children first’ — with all the hopes, fears, mischief and fun that comes with being children.
The problems — Kittu’s physical disability and Manya’s stammering — are not seen as overtly challenging; the characters are not treated in a heroic manner. These stories reflect the daily struggles, dreams, and aspirations young children have. These stories, which aim to represent the differently-abled in a sensitive but normal manner, are brought together for children by Tata Trusts Parag initiative.
The inclusion initiative
Parag, founded in 2005-06, connects authors, illustrators, and local publishers to bring out children's literature in other languages to promote reading among children. Funded by Tata Trusts, Parag has - over the past decade - supported the development of 420 new stories for children in the age group five-16, by collaborating with a number of children’s publishers, consultants, experts, non-profits and partner organisations. The books have reached to over 20 million readers in schools, communities, libraries, and homes.
Swaha Sahoo, who heads the Parag initiative, says: “Hundreds of new titles are published each year for children in India, but only a handful of children's books feature a differently-abled character. Books that portray disability realistically are rare. Often children with different abilities grow up not finding relatable characters in stories. Their peers, too, have a limited understanding of the life experiences of the differently-abled.”
To address this gap, Parag, in collaboration with Vidyasagar School, Chennai, and Duckbill Books, invites authors to write stories featuring children with disabilities in a sensitive manner through its annual “Children First: Writing Contest.” Started in 2016, the idea is to create awareness and increase inclusiveness at grass-root level.
Tacking the isolation
Often, even as adults, we are stumped when we have to interact with someone who has some form of disability. How should we greet them? Can we talk about their disability? Ask them how they are coping with it? What problems do they face? How can I help?
This is not due to lack of sensitivity; it is because our interaction with people with special needs is restricted. We rarely learn about them at school. Children with disability often tend to be segregated and sent to special schools.
Lavanya Karthik, author of Neel on Wheels, believes that “as a society, we tend to isolate people we perceive as 'different', rather than create an environment where children of all abilities can interact, and learn to live informed and independent lives”.
“Most of us have grown up without interacting with a differently-abled person, or questioning our entitlement to certain services or opportunities simply because we happen to belong to a majority. In turn, we help keep alive systems that exclude, rather than integrate, people of varying abilities,” she says.
Her Neel on Wheels is a story about a young boy whose wheelchair transforms itself to fight dragons and monsters and chase away scary creatures of the night.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, and the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) have proven to be a game changer in the past decade. With a mandatory requirement for schools and colleges to have barrier-free access, including the provision of ramps, rails, lifts, adaption of toilets for wheelchair users, braille signages, auditory signals, and tactile flooring, children with disability now have the opportunity to study in regular colleges and schools.
Connecting with children
Taking this vision of Inclusive India forward, Parag hopes to spread the message of inclusion through children’s literature. Literature is a means for children to find themselves and others different from them through stories.
The books published by Parag include Neel on Wheels, a picture book by Lavanya Karthik; Vibhuti Cat, an illustrated book by Shikhandin; Kittu’s Terrible Horrible, No Good, Very Mad Day, a book by Harshikaa Udasi; and Manya Learns to Roar, a book by Shruthi Rao. They attempt to connect with personal realities of children living with disabilities. These stories also help readers to understand and empathise with others and, over time, bring about larger shifts in perspective.
Shruthi Rao, the author of Manya Learns to Roar, says. “I believe strongly that children who face challenges while growing up need to have their stories heard by other children in order to be understood, accepted, and not treated as ‘different’.”
In 2006-07 BookTrust, an independent British literacy charity, conducted a study where they spoke to children about the way disability is portrayed in books. The primary observation of children, both disabled and non-disabled, was that there were not enough images of disability in books. Many children also shared personal experiences of isolation in the absence of positive images while they were growing up.
“I believe that we certainly need these stories - children and grown-ups alike. Stories about 'special-needs' or 'differently-abled' children and adults will help familiarise everyone with them, and see things from their point of view too. With these stories, we get to wear their shoes and walk around. So when we emerge, we are enriched and sensitised, without being unctuous,” says Shikhandin, the author of Vibhuti Cat.
“In response to Manya Learns to Roar, a girl bravely shared during a library session that she used to take her bullying classmates’ words to heart. But now, just as Manya learnt to ignore such things and went on to perform in the play, she would do the same,” Swaha shares.
While the Children First initiative has begun weaving stories around disability and normalising the ‘differences’, Young India awaits more narratives that will help children explore other themes - perhaps homosexuality, or even war.
Parag supports community and government libraries across eight states — Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka — reaching 40,000 children.
“For first-generation school-goers, tribal children, children with special needs, finding familiar stories and characters reaffirms their identity and help them find their place in the world. Yet, books that reflect children’s lived reality are not the norm in Indian children’s literature. Children’s First is an initiative aimed at adding more children’s books with differently abled children as protagonists,” Swaha concludes.