According to India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are more than 12 million Indian children living with severe disabilities. The most common causes of a disability include communicable diseases, early childhood infections, early-age motherhood, nutritional deficiencies, insufficient access to health care, poor sanitation, and interfamily marriages.
The world for children with disabilities is at best bleak. They are at higher risk of violence and other forms of abuse, and face discrimination in employment and utilizing government services. A mere one percent have access to schooling, and a shockingly high 80 percent will not survive past the age of 40.
As difficult as life is for these small ones, there are beacons of hope that shine forth in the midst of soul-crushing darkness. There have been renowned icons of virtue like Mother Teresa who dedicated herself and her organization, the Missionaries of Charity, to “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor” for almost 50 years.
Yet for every famous individual working to alleviate the suffering of others, there are dozens of unknowns who ceaselessly toil away in quiet obscurity. Dedicated men and women who daily stand in rivers of despair, often with little more than charity in their hearts, and extend a hand of hope to the less fortunate. One of these unsung heroes is Michelle Harrison.
A kind heart
Harrison, an unassuming woman, is a leader in healthcare, a writer and a doctor specialising in psychiatry, family medicine, and OB-GYN. She also has a heart filled with concern for others. At age 17 she wrote a school essay about “The Meaning of Life” in which she saw herself acquiring the education and skills to one day care for orphans. She had seen a friend’s photographs of Korean orphans and something just “clicked” inside her. From that day on she has worked to alleviate suffering.
Her inclination to care for others became official in rural South Carolina, when she signed on to help U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson wage the nation’s War on Poverty. Harrison originally worked for a program that dealt with sanitation, nursing and medical and dental care. Since that time she has served in various positions including training, research and teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as at Harvard University and Tufts University.
Her career includes six years as the Worldwide Medical Director in the Consumer Division for the multinational medical device manufacturer Johnson & Johnson (J&J). She has also served as the Executive Director for J&J’s Institute for Children.
In 1984, Harrison adopted a baby girl from Kolkata and raised her in the United State. Sixteen years later she took her Indian daughter to visit Kolkata and was struck by the widespread belief that nothing could be done for children with disabilities. The consensus was that you could “feed them, shelter them, try to educate them, but they could never be like ‘our children.’ ”
Standing up for neglected children
This attitude didn’t sit well with Harrison and others who had adopted orphans from India and had seen impressive results. “These were our children, and they were thriving,” she said.
Harrison’s daughter eventually graduated from Barnard College in New York City, but she couldn’t stop pondering about other Indian girls who had been rejected for adoption. She believed that India needed to provide for its orphan children and not just ship them abroad, and wondered what such children could achieve “if given opportunities like those abroad, but without the loss of their country, culture, heritage, and religion.”
Driven by her heart and concern for orphans, Harrison decided to “shed the titles, roles and privileges” of her earlier life. In 2006 she sold her home in the U.S. and, with her savings and pension, moved to Kolkata with the goal to create a replicable model of an inclusive non-institutional home for orphan girls, some with disabilities.
Thus was born the Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay in 2007. Harrison’s first group consisted of 12 neglected girls who had been abandoned and were previously living in a government run home. They were transferred to Shishur Sevay for “care and rehabilitation.” Four of the girls had profound disabilities, including cerebral palsy, autism, microcephaly, visual impairments, cognitive delays, and other conditions, and several were not expected to survive.
A second chance
At Shishur Sevay, the girls were able to receive medical care, physical rehabilitation, a safe environment, and proper education. The goal was to allow the girls to grow to their unique abilities and potential, with the aim of helping them achieve maximum independence.
Each girl had a traumatic history and required special care. Harrison used her medical training and experience to provide personal care to each child. While she worked tirelessly to create a support structure to give the girls the care and opportunities that their counterparts in the West were receiving, Harrison quickly realized that what the children needed most was a caring maternal figure — a “mother to check their homework at night.”
She also realized how much each of the children needed one another. “Bonds of genuine love grew between the abled and the children with severe disabilities,” she said. “I am mother to them, but their strength and security is also in their connections to each other.”
Shishur Sevay’s method of care is inclusive as the abled and “differently-abled” have much to offer each other. Living closely with each other they developed compassion, acceptance, responsibility and love.
Being orphaned in India is life-shattering, it makes one a second-class citizens at regular schools and especially in schools for the disabled. Because none of the girls had previously attended school, and some had disabilities that greatly impaired learning, finding the right means to teach them was a constant struggle studded with failure and success.
In 2013 Harrison and her staff created Ichche Dana Learning Center. The center conducts regular classes and has developed a course structure suited to the special needs of its students. Right away the school saw computers as a natural teaching tool as the girls quickly learned to do online searches for what they wanted to know. Computer aids and curriculum enhance the learning process and make it easier for students to retain lessons and learning to use the computers gives the girls a sense of independence and competence.
Because visuals play a key role in helping the students learn, classes and lessons are full of images and graphics.
Ichche also follows the Khan Academy model of teaching, utilizing “flipped classrooms” so the girls can learn at their own pace with the teacher acting as a facilitator and educational guide. Classes also utilize online teaching for a more structured program that provides student assessments and regular progress reports in English and Math. The girls attend regular classes via Skype with teachers located across the globe.
Teaching with technology
Shishur Sevay is a leader in the utilization of advanced communication technology. “We were one of the first in India to purchase and use the Tobii Eye Tracker,” said Harrison. “It allows our most physically impaired, but cognitively intact girls to speak via infrared receptors that follow their eyes on the computer screen.”
Like so many other methods tried by Shishur Sevay, the idea to use the eye-tracking platform came about because one of the girls was desperate to communicate with staff, and previous technology proved unable to compensate for her extreme motor impairment.
The girls have responded well to the eye-tracker and it is now the standard tool used by those with cerebral palsy to communicate in class. In a show of cooperation, the other students are learning how to set the eye-tracker up and write the pages needed by girls with cerebral palsy.
Proficiency in word processing and office skills are a way for the girls to communicate with people outside the school. Using a computer on a daily basis has helped the girls to develop a solid understanding of IT abilities. In fact, the girls now have a basic level of technological savvy.
Since the students are comfortable using computers and learning different programs, the staff are confident that they can gain the skills to make them employable in IT and ITES. Some jobs that the girls can be a fit for include BPO/KPO jobs, including front office and back office. BPO jobs include all operational activities like call centers, finance and accounting and technical helpdesk. India is a huge source for these sort of jobs where one can start at the bottom level positions and rise to the top ranks.
Trained to work in IT
The girls regularly use Microsoft Word and Excel for class presentations and would be suited to such jobs, especially for the back office as the work hours for these jobs are flexible and a lot of them can be carried out from home. This would be particularly suited for the girls with special needs as they could work from home at convenient hours.
Discussions are also in progress to provide digital marketing training for some of the students. Skills like SEO, Content Management, Social Media and Email Marketing offer high-paying jobs and are in increasing demand with 90 percent of marketers reporting a shortage of digital skills. Shishur Sevay’s girls, with their extensive experience in computer usage, should find it relatively simple to acquire the required skills for digital marketing. Here again the jobs can be executed from home and at flexible hours.
To increase the likelihood of landing IT jobs, the girls receive instruction in written and spoken English. Work is also being done to neutralise their accents and students are encouraged to carry out everyday conversations in English. As the classes are presentation based, the girls are learning to speak with confidence.
Staff closely monitors new trends in the marketplace and maintains periodic evaluations on employability. New features are constantly added to the curriculum and any new courses for special-needs children are reviewed regularly to make certain the girls are aligned with the latest trends in technology.
Presently, two of the older girls will be taking their Class 10 board examinations later this year. “However as academic qualification is not a prerequisite for any of the above jobs, we are hoping the girls can take up these jobs while they study for their board and university exams in the future,” said Harrison.
The Shishur Sevay team has great plans for their students’ ability to be independent and are hopeful that in the future corporations will open up even more avenues for employment. “IT and ITES opportunities in India are innumerable,” said Harrison. “We hope that teaching IT skills will enable the girls to develop competence, confidence, independence, and leadership.”
No one can solve all the problems of the world, and life can be a dark and painful experience. Fortunately, there are people like Harrison and the Shishur Sevay team that, against tremendous odds, are raising a lamp to light the path and give warmth to the most vulnerable. More important than the teaching and care they offer, is the hope they give. We would all do well to emulate their example.