Sunday, June 20, 2004

Art comes to their aid

Gagandeep Kaur reports on how an organisation has tapped the talent of special children through art and enriched their lives

Twentyfive-year-old mentally challenged and visually impaired Ajay Joshi works on a loom
Twentyfive-year-old mentally challenged and visually impaired Ajay Joshi works on a loom

It is now generally accepted that the arts serve as an effective therapy for differently-abled children. But when Delhi-based NGO Very Special Arts India (VSAI) was established in 1986, this concept was still novel. VSAI has been working since then towards integration of the differently-abled into mainstream society, and to enrich their lives through remedial therapy using dance, drama, music, visual arts and crafts.

"We strongly believe that art is an important medium to bring out the creativity of disabled children. Art not only helps in the integration of disabled children into mainstream society, it also creates awareness on the ability of the disabled," says Dr Meera Singh, honorary secretary, VSAI.

The happy faces and confident body language of children and young adults at the VSAI centre are testimony to Singh’s statement. "I like to come here," says Ajay Joshi, 25, haltingly. He is learning how to weave at VSAI. Joshi is mentally challenged with vision impairment, but that doesn’t mar his confidence as he explains how to use the loom.

The walls of the centre are decorated with paintings by differently-abled artists. The centre itself is a vibrant place, with children thoroughly enjoying activities like weaving, paper-making, candle-making, dance and drama. VSAI’s summer workshop, which ended on May 21, 2004, was packed with powerful performances. The children moved gracefully to the music, in perfect synchronisation with the rest of their group.

When VSAI started out in 1986, the concept of using art as remedial therapy was considered elitist. "In the beginning, nobody took us seriously. Using art as remedial therapy was totally unheard of 15 years ago," says Singh. VSAI conducted a survey on how art therapy is perceived in India. "We sent a questionnaire to all NGOs working with disabled children in the country, asking them to tell us where they placed art in their list of priorities.

We found that while many NGOs realised that art had a positive impact and should be used as part of therapy, paucity of funds compelled them to push art to the bottom of their list of priorities," Singh says. To address issues that emerged as part of the survey, VSAI began its operations in the country with a three-pronged programme.

"We started by sending art trainers to schools dealing with disabled children in Delhi. While the school used to provide us with infrastructure, we sustained the trainers. We are continuing with this programme and have covered about 20 institutes in the city so far," Singh says. "We do get requests to help adults as well but, with experience, we have realised that this is not feasible. Children and adults have different requirements. So, our focus is on children and the youth."

VSAI reaches out to between 500 to 1,000 children every year. Most of these children are from underprivileged backgrounds. "We regularly seek out parents of children from economically disadvantaged households and request them to send their children to the centre. Where we can form groups, we also provide transport," says Singh.

Secondly, the organisation started training special trainers. VSAI regularly organises teacher-training programmes. Trainers are invited from India and abroad, and participants are sent to international festivals to enhance learning and boost the morale of people from this sector.

Of late, VSAI has started vocational programmes in a number of areas. "We realised some time ago that being independent is a critical need for the disabled. We launched vocational services with this aim in mind. Today, I am proud to say that six of our children earn between Rs 1,000 (US$ 1=Rs 45.27) and Rs 2,000 every month as a result of the training we provide."

VSAI has recently introduced a new programme, Early Intervention, through which special pre-school children are given intense therapy. This is followed up with personal visits by the organisation’s trainers to the children’s homes to assess progress and educate the caregivers.

Initially, VSAI was affiliated to the Washington-based Very Special Arts, but it is an autonomous body today and funded totally by the public. The organisation regularly holds exhibitions to bring to fore the work of these children. "We started organising a national Festival for the Disabled but we were not able to keep our deadline of organising it every five years, mainly because of paucity of funds and other issues like travel and security concerns for the children. However, we do try to do whatever we can. For instance, during the National Olympics for the Disabled in February this year, we organised a number of art-related activities for the participants and the spectators. Recently, we also organised a ‘Special Ramayana’ in which about 200 disabled children from various schools in Delhi participated. It was a huge success," Singh says.

These exhibitions and events serve another important purpose - they provide opportunities for able-bodied and differently-abled persons to interact. It allows able-bodied persons an opportunity to understand that handicaps—physical or mental—do not stem human potential.