February 15, 2022 12:26:48 pm
Sai Rohan is so excited to return to physical classes after a gap of almost 22 months that his teacher now cautions the boy that he will be sent back home if he does not listen to her. He sheepishly chuckles and agrees to follow her instructions. The fourteen-year-old, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is one of the four students out of the 32 who returned to school last week.
The special school for children with genetic and intellectual disabilities, housed in a Nizam-era mansion on the campus of the Institute of Genetics and Hospital for Genetic Diseases in Begumpet, located only a stone’s throw away from the Chief Minister’s official residence, was reduced to a film shooting location, courtesy the Covid-19 pandemic. Through these tough months, however, the teachers kept the students engaged in the curriculum through virtual classes via WhatsApp.
“It could take a full year for such a child to do something as simple as brushing their teeth by themselves. What we do is identify their personal, social, and academic goals as per their age. Short-term goals are assessed based on their needs, personal skills, and IQ. If not practised regularly, they would forget everything and we have to start again from scratch,” says Prashanti, one of the three teachers at the school, explaining why it was necessary to continue with online education for her students with special needs.
The development of such children progresses step-by-step through physical and verbal prompting, identification and modelling, etc. Prashanti has been teaching here for the last 21 years and says support and cooperation from parents are paramount.
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Pointing at Sai Rohan, her colleague Sunitha adds, “It (online classes) is extremely challenging since our students have various intellectual disabilities. Rohan is not going to sit in one place as his attention span is extremely short. Without the support of parents, it would not have been possible to stay connected online.”
Ravi Teja, another student with ADHD, quips “I also want to come to school every day. I like it here.”
Established in 1993, the Special Education Centre for the Mentally Handicapped is an independent institution run purely on donations and support from the Institute of Genetics. Apart from contributions from the faculty at the institute and the Osmania University, donations come in from film crews as well when they visit the premises.
Most of the students here are diagnosed with rare genetic diseases ranging from Down syndrome, Apert syndrome, Autism spectrum disorder, microcephaly, hydrocephalus, ADHD, cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities. While mild to moderate cases can be taught and trained to become independent and employable, severe cases need a personal caretaker.
In August 2020, after the first Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were eased, teachers decided to streamline online classes by segregating the students into three categories. The parents were counselled first. Though every parent had a smartphone, only 12 were regulars in online classes. They were either preoccupied with daily chores or did not have the patience. All those who attended had children with mild to moderate cases.
“Through online classes, the teachers focused on following through on the development of a child’s personal skills as well as occupational skills and social skills apart from academic skills. Tests too were conducted at regular intervals,” explains Dr G Deepika, assistant professor at the Institute of Genetics, who is in charge of the school. They learned the concepts of money, time, colours, and to write their addresses as well.
Before the pandemic, students were offered vocational training in making file boards, candles, paper bags, envelopes, phenyl, etc, and also taught gardening, music, dance and pottery. “Parents are not yet ready to send their wards to school as they are more vulnerable to infections. Only four have returned so far. One of their concerns is lack of transportation,” Dr Deepika points out. Meanwhile, Roja (40) and Naga Sai (35), two former students of the school, have joined them as support staff.
Dr B Vijaya Lakshmi, director of the Institute of Genetics, wants to develop the school as a centre for intellectual disabilities affiliated to Osmania University so that the issue of paucity of funds and recognition can be addressed. “This school is run as a service to parents using individual donations and CSR support. The school needs a full-time psychologist, physiotherapist, speech therapist, yoga teacher, dance teacher and vocational training expert. We are also thinking of arranging transport facilities for children to improve admissions. We will prepare and submit a proposal to Osmania University soon,” she says.
In the absence of full-time experts, the school engages interns from institutes such as the National Institute of Mental Health. Teachers also feel it is important to upgrade the vocational skills imparted to these students to match present-day needs. For instance, Naga Sai, who has multiple genetic diseases, passed 10th grade in the open school category three years ago and can drive a two-wheeler today. “The idea is to help students to be independent and employable, and they can lead normal lives no more dependent on their parents. Without online classes during the pandemic, they would have gone ten steps backward.”
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