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Indian special-needs school founder speaks at Saint Mary’s

| Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Chitra Shah, the founder and director of Indian non-profit Satya Special School, spoke at the Saint Mary’s Carroll Auditorium on Monday.

Satya Special School is the largest rehabilitation program for children with special needs in Pondicherry, India, servicing over 900 children.

“I come from a privileged background,” Shah said. “When I say privileged background, I did what I wanted, I wore the clothes that I wanted, I studied the subject that I wanted and finally married the man that I wanted — something that a number of girls in India do not have the privilege of. Finally, when I married into a very wealthy family, I decided that I should give back something.”

Shah said her mission to help her community started with a visit to a disabled girl’s home in which she witnessed abuse.

“I saw this child tied up to a plastic chair with nylon ropes,” Shah said. “The mom very casually told me, ‘I leave her locked up like this eight hours a day.’ The first thought that crossed my mind was: ‘We keep dogs in a better condition.’”

It wasn’t long until Shah realized this wasn’t uncommon in the area.

“One of the things that this mom told me was that ‘I’m not the only one who ties up the children; I know so many other mothers who do this,’” Shah said. “So I gathered all these moms up and I asked them, ‘Would you send your children to a center if I started one?’”

From there she started the school in 2003 with 20 children. Today the program has over 900 kids across nine centers in India.

“There is a huge mythos attached to disabilities [in India],” Shah said. “… The belief is that they committed such a huge sin in the past that the gods have punished them with a special needs child. A child with autism is considered to be possessed by an evil spirit, so these kids are made to walk on fire and sometimes tied up to a tree and whiplashed. So whenever the family understands that they have a special needs child, the mothers are given two options: One is to walk out of the family with the child, or abandon the child.”

The centers not only aid in the care and education of children with special needs, but helps build a community for the single mothers left to raise the children alone.

“They started understanding that it was more scientific,” Shah said. “It was something else, it was not them. They all sat together and shared for the first time. Women in India would never go to a counselor. You would never go to somebody and share your problem.”

Satya Special School has expanded since its start to include hydro, occupational, special education, group and speech therapy. They also include a school readiness program, activity-based learning, learning through visual media, learning practicality, drama as a learning tool, learning through movement and learning through play. Skill and vocational training is taught as well to the older residents. This includes teaching them paper quilting, baking, wood working, cup making and mat weaving.

“We are sending out this strong message that there is so much hope,” Shah said. “Yes, you have a child who’s difficult to handle, but yet you can live your life and live it well.”

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