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Breaking Barriers of Disability And Turning Challenges Into Opportunities
" Viswanathan Sulekha’s with her friend, Asmita at the Kasturba Gandhi BalikaVidyalaya (KGBV) in Tharthari, Bihar. "

By Azera Parveen Rahman

NALANDA  India, 27 May 2013 - Otherwise shy, Sulekha’s face immediately lights up when her friend Asmita is around. Sharing their bed space in the dorm of the Kasturba Gandhi BalikaVidyalaya (KGBV) in Tharthari, Bihar, both the girls love each other’s company and have become great friends just three months after meeting for the first time.

The fact that the bridge of conventional communication—words—is missing from their friendship, is hardly a barrier. Sulekha is deaf and speech impaired, while Asmita is not.

For Asmita and 99 girls like her in the Tharthari KGBV in the Nalanda district, there is nothing unusual about having 25 other girls like Sulekha amidst them—going to school together, playing with each other, sharing rooms, and living a fun-filled hostel life.

But for those like Sulekha, who are the first batch of girls with disability to be a part of the KGBV and living a mainstream life, it is a whole new world.

“I like it here. No one teases me....everyone is my friend,” says Swati, a class 6 student of the same KGVB, in sign language. 

Deaf and speech impaired, she smiles and makes dramatic hand movements to emphasise that she enjoys the residential school. 
With the aim of ensuring inclusive education, the Bihar Education Project Council issued a notification last December to include 100 girls with disability from predominantly backward castes, minority communities and poor economic background in 3 to 4 KGBVs in every district of the state.

The Government gives them access to residential facilities and education along with other girls without disability; and facilitate the necessary equipment, therapy and medical help. 

In doing so, Bihar became one of the first states in the country to include girls with disability (especially those who are hearing impaired or physically challenged) in KGBVs. Theinitiative,which began in January 2013, is supported by UNICEF as part of its overall support to Bihar Government to improve quality education in elementary schools with a focus on equity and inclusion.  

“I do not have any problem interacting with Sulekha,” Asmita, who is in class 8, says as a matter-of-fact. “We use sign language.When I want to ask her if she is hungry, I just point at my mouth and stomach, and she understands. If she is not feeling well, she places her hand on her forehead, or her right hand on her left wrist, and I tell the warden”.

All the girls go to school together at Sri Chand Rajkiya Madhya Vidyalaya, which is adjoining the brightly painted KGBV in the same campus.The fact that  the dorms are mixed facilitates the interaction among everyone, which, ultimately, is the aim of this whole effort. The three teachers and warden of the hostel ensure that all the girls follow a schedule that has their day beginning at 6.30 a.m. 

“Once the girls come back from school, have had their lunch and some rest, they do some studying, before going out to play.  I help the 25 girls who have hearing disability in their studies,” says Baby Sinha, resource teacher at the Tharthari KGBV, who is trained to teach children who are deaf and have  speech impairment.

She writes a word on the board, both in English and in Hindi, and the girls use sign language to explain what it is, indicating that they can read. “The goal is to help these girls cope with their school work, and smoothen out doubts. We do drawing, learn about numbers and write sentences. The girls also love dancing, and spend time with a music teacher who comes at regular intervals,” Sinha adds.

Shailendra Kumar, an audiologist and speech therapist visits the KGBV regularly to provide speech therapy. “Most of the girls are 100 percent deaf, but some have only 50-60 percent hearing loss. So in cases of partial loss, there is some improvement with therapy,” he explains.

Excited about the future ahead

Twelve-year-old Gulabsa Khatun, who is physically handicapped , stays in another KGBV attached to the Adarsh Mahavidyalaya in Islampur. Today is her first day at the center. Wearing a pink and black salwar-kurta, her hair in a neat plait, she canhardly hide her excitement as she climbs a flight of stairs on her hands to have a look around the hostel. 

“I know the schedule already,” she says with a smile, her enthusiasm unhidden. “I have made two friends, Gudiya and Gita,” she adds, pointing at two other girls. Gulabsa’s cousin, who goes by the same name and is also physically handicapped, has also taken admission along with her on the same day. Both are in class 6.

Ajmeri Khatun, Gulabsa’s mother, who stays by watching the girls settle in before saying goodbye, explains that admitting the girls in the KGBV is the best decision she and her husband, a farmer, could have taken. “Some time ago a teacher came to our village (in the course of an awareness camp) and told us about this place. We cross checked, and decided to bring the girls here,” Khatun says.

Looking around the hostel, the dorms, the dining hall, and the classrooms where the girls study, she adds, “they could never have such facilities at home because we wouldn’t be able to afford it. Here, they will get to study, always have healthy food, and mix around with others”.

But it’s not just about academics and games. Through their daily chores in the KGBVs, the girls learn to be self-reliant and gain confidence to dream big. 

“The girls are not dependant on anyone. They  wash their own plates after meals, wash their own clothes, clean their rooms on a rotation basis, and dress up for school. The differently-abled girls are also not dependent on anyone, although we do look out for them,” states Kumari Poonam, one of the teachers who stays with the girls at the KGBV in Chandi in the Nalanda district.
Best friends Manchan Kumari and Alpana Kumari who are both physically challenged, go on to say that they like their life in the hostel “better than at home”. 

Mamta Kumari who is in class 6 has an amputed leg and stays in the KGBV as well. “I like going to school because everyone supports me, and plays with me,” she states. Anil Kumar, the headmaster of the Adarsh Middle School in Chandi, where Manchan, Alpana and Mamta study, says that there has been no problem in integrating the 25 girls in the school with the rest of the children.

“The girls are hard-working and have mingled well with their other classmates. I think this initiative of bringing to the mainstream children with disability who,  otherwise, would be left behind, and help them achieve their dreams, will help the society develop as a whole,” Kumar points out while adding that in order to help the physically challenged girls further, there is a corridor under construction which will link the KGBV straight to the school so that they do not have to walk so much. .

“The best thing about being here is that I can study,” says Aarti Kumari, who suffers from congenital dislocation of the hip, as she stretches her leg while exercising with the physiotherapist. “I want to become a teacher one day and teach maths to children, just like my teacher in school,” she concludes with a smile.

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