Helping Children With Special Needs

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya


We got down at Waragoda junction in Kelaniya which is situated near the famous Thorana junction on the Colombo – Kandy highway. The place we wanted to explore was situated quite close to the junction. It looked like an ordinary house but as we stepped inside, we started to witness the uniqueness of this residence.

The time was 8.30 am in the morning. At the entrance we saw two children with their guardians. The house looked like a kindergarten school combined with a day care center. The students here were no ordinary children. At first they looked as if they were suffering from some sort of physical deformity. How did they end up here? To find answers, we started to investigate the story behind this institution and the stories of these children.

“My child was down with fever for many days. So it is today that he was able to come to school after a long time. It is a fortunate thing that this school is teaching my child something. Otherwise where can we go with these children?” This was only a fraction of the sorrowful story of one such innocent child. “I did not raise any more children. I will take care of this one as long as I can. He understands everything well but as his mind grows slowly, it takes time for him to grasp things.” The story of this unfortunate mother was interrupted with the arrival of the class teacher.

“There are no schools we could enroll these children into. We cannot teach them at home either. Normal schools do not accept these children. Neither do we have the financial means to spend alot on special treatment for these children.” This was the comment of another guardian.

We were inside the premises of SERD institute in Kelaniya. The SERD institute, which is registered as a volunteer organisation under Section 20 of the Protection of the rights of the persons with disabilities Act No. 28 of 1996, is a home for disabled that is registered under Section 7 of the Western Province Social Services Declaration No. 3 of 2006 as a service center for elders and disabled personnel.

The welfare center, which was first established on January 2, 2010 with 9 children, provides volunteer support for children with all kinds of disabilities. At present there are around 200 registered children at the center with over 40 regular attendees. The center provides care for disabled children living in Colombo and Gampaha areas. The most common disability we saw among the children was the slow mental growth.

In Sri Lanka around 7 percent of the entire population  comprises children with some form of disability. By providing a sanctuary for these unfortunate kids, the SERD institute is providing a social service that cannot be valued in money. Generally, a disabled child is treated by the society as an outcast as they are often kept away from ordinary children and subjected to disgust. This type of ill treatment even extends to the parents of the child as well. Especially, there are countless instances where husbands have left their wives once they bear children with deformities. Due to this backward attitude of the society, even those children who can be rehabilitated  are pushed further into the abyss.

The SERD institute holds classes for these children from 8.30 am in the morning till 5.00 pm in the evening. At its helm is a woman who had been engaged in social services since childhood. Despite her womanhood, she is more empowered than most of her male counterparts. Her long career in social services that had laid down on a hard road with countless obstacles, had changed course after she had received higher education in the subject of caring for disabled children in Norway. Accordingly, after coming back to Sri Lanka she had started this institute out of her own labour, and has been able to develop it with the assistance of various well wishers. She has truly become a mother to these children some of who have been rejected by their own parents. She is Lasantha Sriyakanthi by name. We discussed with her about her venture in offering sanctuary to these unfortunate souls.

“We must recognise the characteristics of the child from the beginning. They must be trained for everything from eating and drinking. We have kids who suffer from a range of disabilities varying from disabilities in speech to disabilities in movement. What they require is love. When given alot of love, it is easy for them to get comfortable with society. Even to depend on someone else, these children must be made capable of doing their basic work. It is wrong to keep these children inside homes.” This is Lasantha’s opinion.

If the parents could detect any lapses in activity in small children, it is easier to identify the children with disabilities at a very early age. Those children, who had not been able to utter a word nor were able to walk even a step, have now been able to speak and walk a little due to the effort of Lasantha’s team.

Both parents must be held responsible for the disabilities of the children. As members of an intelligent society, we must understand that the burden of blame cannot be placed solely upon the women who give birth to these children.

Most of the children who study at this institute are blooming with talent. There are many who have shown great promise in the areas of sports, dancing, music and sculpture. Some have even achieved victories in provincial level sports events and competitions.

Malka is an athlete who has gone to the national level from Shot Put and Discus throw sports. If trained properly, many of these children could even be prepared to compete in international sports events of disabled athletes. Apart from sports, some of these students are very skilled in creating handicrafts such as cards, mats, bags, jewellery and other fancy goods.

Among Lasantha’s future goals is creating a better job market for these children. At present there are two disabled personnel who are currently employed at the institute as paid workers to assist Lasantha in her work. Some of the children have also been able to make a living by selling the handicrafts they make.

“This is not an illness. This is something that has taken place due to Karma. That is how I see it according to my religious views. So it is important to show these kids love and help them to interact with society. We must help them to enhance their skills. These disabilities can be cured through medical treatment, physical therapy and occupation therapy, but for that we need the support of the parents.” This is another view of Lasantha, who had become a mother to these kids a long time ago.

Genetic issues, prohibited relationships, illnesses suffered by the mother at the time of child birth such as high blood pressure and Diabetes, delay in delivery and mistakes of doctors are few among many reasons that could cause a deformed child birth.

However, no matter what the cause may be, once the child is born to this world, it is the duty and responsibility of the entire society to take care of this child.

This is not a problem that is confined to the lower classes of the society. There are deformed children in well to do families. We have witnessed in many instances where these kids have been cast aside by these high class families due to social pressure. This is a clear violation the rights of these children. They can only be cured by helping them step into the society.

SERD institute conducts a kindergarten school for these children, providing them with education in the subjects of environment, mathematics and English and giving them necessary therapies and introducing them to various sports and aesthetic activities. There are many examples to show how art has changed these children.

Apart from school education, these children are also given vocational training for their future work. Every year the institute holds an exhibition where most of the creations of these children are sold. Throughout the year the children are introduced to various cultural activities such as New Year, Christmas and Wesak. The kids are given the opportunity to observe sil and perform other religious rituals. The art exhibition that is organised by the institute is named ‘Kampana’. Some of the students here have shown their colors at the Samah Eliya talent show carried out by national level associations for the disabled and have even obtained an opportunity to compete at an international Talent Show in Macowa. Unfortunately however, only the food and accommodation expenses are covered and the students have to bear the travel costs.

However, Lasantha has not given up on these children’s dreams. She is searching for kind donors who could assist these children to achieve their dreams.

Although branded as ‘children with special needs’, these kids look similar to any ordinary child. They grow up in the same manner and like others, they too have special skills. We were able to see how they quarrel with each other and how they interact with each other, which was similar to an ordinary child. Since they have problems in processing information slower than ordinary children their behaviour has been changed. So it is no easy job taking care of these kids. Most of the teachers, employees and officials do not prefer to work with these children. This is the result of the same backward attitude of the society.

Furthermore, once a disabled child is born, the parents of that child stop having any more children. However, it is vital for these children to have siblings and the parents too cannot be barred from having more children. However, if a couple has a disabled child, it would be best to seek medical advice before having another child.

These children could be integrated into the society even through marriage. All they require is attention. Even when it comes to employment, there are those who can help these children.

“It makes me sad to see the present status these children are in. We sent six of our children to Norway and they refused to return to Sri Lanka. Those countries treat disabled children as human beings. Most of my friends in Norway are disabled but they have been kind enough to contribute a part of their salaries to maintain this institute. However, here even those who are able prefer not to look after these children,” Lasantha described her international experience.

At present these children have even faced difficulties in finding their meals. It only costs Rs. 250. They welcome any donation and for Lasantha, the biggest challenge she has faced since the beginning is paying the monthly rent of Rs. 27,000 for the house they are keeping these children. For a long time, she has been hoping for a permanent place to build a proper school for these children. She has made this request from all the governments but so far no positive response has been granted by any authority. If  suitable land is given, she is in the hopeful that the building could be built somehow.

The UN Declaration on Children was initiated in 1989 and it was ratified by Sri Lanka on July 11, 1991. Accordingly, the Sections 1 to 54 lays down the rights of children. In it is clearly mentioned that it is the state responsibility to provide education, health and other social requirements to all children under the age 18. Unfortunately, these provisions have at present been confined  to the pages of law books. It is high time the minister of social welfare and other government officials looks into this issue.

Sri Lankans are generous people who have even donated their own meal to others in times of need. That humanitarian view must also be extended to these children as well. The time has come to change our views about these children. We urge you to be a part of this worthy cause.

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