Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Discussing Disability

Reading Catch That Cat with children with special needs

Archana Joshi, the co-founder of Ekadaksha Center, on seeing a write up about Catch That Cat in The Hindu (dated Jan 2014) asked me if I’d be willing to do a story telling session at her school. Ekadahsha, in Mandeveli, is a four year venture aimed at educating children with autism and learning disabilities. Having worked with differently-abled children before, I looked forward to a session with these students. I must admit here, that a part of me was interested in knowing what they made of a book about a girl who faces challenges on a day to day basis, and how she makes use of her “disability” to help a friend.  

Aware that meeting someone for the first time might prove to be a challenge for some of the kids, I offered to visit the school a day before the scheduled book reading. I also figured that having an idea of my audience was a really good idea. I admit I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I reached Ekadaksha.
Of the fifteen students there, only one or two of them were verbal. Some of the boys in the senior struggled to communicate what they had done over the weekend, even as one cried piteously because he missed his grandmother. Story telling was going to be way more difficult than I had imagined! I was also a bit taken aback when one of the teachers – in an attempt to be helpful, I’m sure – told me not to worry if her students didn’t follow the story. “Usually we do one story over a week,” she added. All the activities I had planned instantly vanished from my mind. I was struck by the irony of it all – telling a story about being differently-abled to a class who struggled to communicate their own differences and difficulties.

Regardless, I was determined to give the kids at Ekadaksha a story telling session that they would enjoy. But I was at a loss as to how to do so. That evening, I spoke to V. Balakrishnan of Theatre Nisha. I explained to him that I have never handled such highly autistic kids before. How was I to tell them a story if I was unable to communicate with them? Bala, having worked with children with special needs before, suggested incorporate sounds and music into my story. Indeed, studies have shown that children with autism respond better to play or therapy sessions with music than to sessions without music. Since music is not my forte, I focussed on sounds and worked on retelling Catch That Cat with as many new sounds and actions as possible.

When the day of the story telling session dawned, I was much less nervous that I ought to have been. Seated in a circle, we talked about dogs and cats, and the different sounds the animals make. Then, I went on to tell them – with sounds and actions and pictures – the story of Kaapi the cat, and how he got rescued by Dip Dip.

The response was overwhelming. Not only did the boys in the circle really enjoy the story, but they also repeated the sounds and did the actions with me. One of the boys got carried away and even told the story with me! I realised something that day and I was rather surprised that it hadn’t struck me before: disability is in the eyes of the viewer. Everyone is capable of understanding and following even the most complex streams of thought. We just need to find a medium that is best suited to our needs.

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