Out and About Part 2: A Spotlight on Special Needs-Friendly Organizations
Last Sunday, we all piled into the car and headed out to the academic year’s first day of Sanatan Vidyalay. A was beaming because this is his second year there, and he knows the driving route with great precision. He was also beaming because he had a grand time attending the class last year, and he knew that everyone would say hi to him, and to A, ‘hi’ is sometimes a whole conversation.
As is the case every year, we began with a Ganesh puja, and A was in a state of utter bliss. He was happy and fully engaged for a solid hour and a half, and only blew his top when it was time to go home. It cracks us up to see him be that kid who is sorry to go home.
Sanatan Vidyalay, or SV, as we all call it, is a volunteer-run school that aims to teach our kids how to live a meaningful Hindu American life, how to interpret the scriptures in a way that is pertinent to them, and also to enjoy our culture and heritage as a community. I have immense respect for how that plays out. My husband and I have been teaching there for a while, and we have experienced so much acceptance for the kind of family we are.
This isn’t our first whirl with a Balvihar-type of organization, and they are not all created the same. The one that G and I attended previously was neither willing nor able to draw in special needs families, and without getting into details or critiques, we felt completely isolated, so we packed our metaphorical bags and hightailed it to SV. A couple of years later, my husband was roped in, and then it occurred to me to ask if A could attend classes too. To my surprise and delight, they said yes, and so began A’s first year there. He soaked it all in, from the group prayers and yoga, to the classroom interactions, and then his mind was blown by participating in the annual heritage festival in June.
It’s not a requirement that religious classes be special needs-friendly, but considering how many families like us are out there, and that many of us do believe our kids can benefit from having a spiritual community, I think more groups could be planning and studying how to include us. After all, there’s Buddy Ball, that gives special needs kids a sporting experience with one on one high school volunteers, and there are movie theatres that have special screenings for kids who can’t tolerate complete darkness and overly loud audio. So why not open up our ‘desi’ activities in a formal way? Then we can dispel that sense of special needs families as ‘unfortunate,’ and not assume that people like us will find other ways to give our kids some Indian culture. With many Hindu temples and wedding ceremonies becoming rather western influenced in their expectation of silence, where are our kids going to find that sense of acceptance? There are no nebulous ‘other ways.’ It has to begin with existing organizations, and it has to permeate thoroughly, so that our kids are peppered amongst their developmentally-on-target peers, and only then can we say we are inclusive, and that we don’t allow our various philosophical meanderings about why some people are born with special needs to give us permission to politely forget about families that are differently abled.
Special needs is the great leveler anyhow. It affects all sub communities, and our kids don’t know or care what caste they are from, or whether Shiva or Vishnu is more kickass. At least for A, he loves the sound of mantras being chanted, he loves bhajans, he loves to ring the brass bell, and he laughs with joyful abandon when he is in a moment of satsang. Really, he has distilled these practices down to their essentials, and his enraptured love for ritual pomp draws us in and makes us rediscover the beauty in it. He has made it a point to study how an altar is set up, and every time we do a puja at home, or we attend an SV event, he pores over the sacred items and does his own mini version of a puja without being prompted.
I asked Jagdish Talreja, who heads SV, to walk me through his thoughts on the integration of special needs families into Hinduism classes, and here is a transcript of our exchange:
Q: Would you ever consider creating a class just for special needs kids? Or do you prefer it to be an informal thing?
A: If we have the volunteers needed, facilities etc, I see no issues in having a special needs class at SV. I will in fact go out on a limb and say the following. It is imperative for our community to ensure that we provide the appropriate space and an “inclusive” atmosphere for special needs kids. They may learn differently, and the obligation is upon us to understand their different abilities and provide to them an appropriate learning environment and curriculum. By supporting special needs kids, we also support the parents.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on how we can keep A engaged in SV as he gets older, and Class 1 may not be such an appropriate fit anymore?
A: I think the most important is to understand how A learns things, what is acceptable, what is not. Make him comfortable. Teaching techniques that will work for him. He may or may not be able to fulfill his purusharthas* but there are many well abled who do not also, many by choice but most by ignorance. A can certainly be trained to follow many aspects of Swa Dharma** if not all. Our challenge is to rise up and teach these things to him in a way that he can relate to.
*The four objectives of human life, which most have to strive to achieve, namely Artha (activity and physical materials that sustain life), Kama (the pursuit of happiness and pleasure), Dharma (the duties and obligations we owe to others), and Moksha (liberation of the soul from attachment, expectations, and desires).
**An individual’s personal values which are in his or her control. They are expressed in his or her actions and behaviors.
A has four wonderful teachers at SV– Dipti Patel, Shubhra Bhargava, Roma Soni, and Neha Saraiya. My questions were answered by Roma, and are a perfect example of how they all include A in every aspect of instruction:
Q: Have you ever found having A in the class to be disruptive to your teaching? What would you want us to do differently?
A: A was never a disruption to the class. There were about 12 kids ages 6 and under in that classroom and there was usually a certain amount of structured chaos during the 40 minutes of instruction. A’s disruptions were no more than any other child in that class. He fit in very well!
The one thing I would have liked to see is A sitting alongside the other kids instead of at the back of the room.
Q: I remember how easily you both agreed to allow A to join Class 1, and am so grateful to you for the warm welcome he has gotten. Did you have any hesitation? If so, on what basis? If not, can you briefly outline your thoughts on why it’s a good thing to include special needs kids into SV? If more special needs kids were to join, would you change anything in your teaching methods?
A: I do not remember any hesitation whatsoever in having A in the classroom. More and more mainstream kids are in inclusion or transition classrooms in their schools and are learning that some kids need a little more attention than others. The more mainstream kids are exposed to special needs kids, the more they will understand and empathize with the special needs kids. At the end of the day, it should be about inclusion and not seclusion.
As far as changing teaching methods; for A we did not have to change anything. He was able to follow the instructions well. However, if needed, we could use more technology in the classroom, like A’s iPad, for better instructions.
Q: Is there anything you would want fellow teachers/parents of the mainstream kids who are in your class to know, i.e. As far as sharing your experience as teachers?
A: I would like the parents of mainstream kids to know that their kids have more empathy and love for special needs kids than the parents give them credit for. In his own special way, A touched the hearts of each and everyone in that class, including myself. I would also acknowledge that the parents were very supportive of A being in the class performance at the Annual Festival, even though there was always the chance that he may not show up on stage. We had a spot for him in the performance and no one- child or adult – cared if that spot on the stage ended up empty for the entire performance. That’s when I knew A made an impact on everyone.
You can imagine, dear reader, why I have such tremendous regard for this organization. There is a huge difference between abstract discussions about inclusion, and actually being instrumental in making inclusion happen. You know that feeling of confidence and belonging you see in a child when they join a sports team, or perform in a concert? That’s the change we have seen in A after a year in SV.
This year, we have begun incorporating SV classes into A’s community outing therapy sessions, and his teachers have welcomed the therapist into the classroom with gusto. It’s our collective hope that A will come to participate more fully, and we also want to work on setting up some shorter term goals and rewards during the class time, so that he can feel motivated in ways that matter to him.
When it comes to the care and nurturing of our special children, and providing environments that challenge them but also make them feel safe, we often have to step up and ask for norms to be changed. There is no room for pessimism and world weariness. In SV, we have seen up close what faith and community engagement can achieve. They have transformed our family’s assumptions about what it is possible to hope for from other people. Where we once merely hoped for tolerance, we have found support and love beyond anything we could have envisioned. In this small corner of the US, Sanatan Dharma is rooted, flourishing, and living up to its highest ideals.