Sujata Patnaik is a woman with a mission. She has empowered scores of children with disabilities and helped them become self-reliant. Many children have gained from the rehabilitation therapies and inclusive education model offered by her institution Ashraya, the Shelter. Set up in 2005, Ashraya has done yeoman service in the area of empowering people with disabilities, both physical and psychological. Ahead of World Disabled Day December 3, Sunday POST spoke to Sujata to learn more about her work and the institution she built.
One may be born disabled or become disabled due to some mishap. But personalities like Einstein, Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, and our own Sudha Chandran (dancer and actress), Arunima Sinha (first amputee to scale Mount Everest), Rajendra Singh Rahelu (polio-stricken silver medallist in Commonwealth Games 2014) make us aware that they are people with special abilities rather than disabilities. Had the parents of these well-known personalities not supported them, they may have struggled through life, says Sujata who has sheltered as many as 233 people with disabilities. The inmates of Ashray arange from two-year old kids to a 45-year-old grown up.
Sujata completed her post graduate studies and Bachelor of Education course from Utkal University. Once, she had gone to attend a function where she came across two grown up children who were dependent on their parents to eat their food. “Out of curiosity, I asked their parents why they were feeding their grown-up sons. The mother replied, ‘We feed them because they cannot eat on their own.’ It was then that I decided to do my bit for people with disabilities and pursued a Diploma in Mental Retardation from Secunderabad. Besides, I also did a few short-term courses to gain more knowledge. In 1992, I associated with the Indian Red Cross Society and worked for persons with disabilities till 2005.”
She continues, “The year 2005 was crucial for me because I got married to Umesh Chandra Patnaik, a structural engineer from Cuttack who had two differently-abled sons from his first wife. Though there was no dearth of marriage proposals, I opted for the marriage to serve these special kids. In the same year, I set up Ashraya, the Shelter.”
Talking about Ashraya, she says, “It is a child care institution dedicated to the development and wellbeing of children who suffer from mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism and multiple disabilities. At present, we have 233 such children of different age groups in our institution. Also, we have 52 dedicated staff members including teachers, assistants and house mothers who provide constant attention and care to the children. Most importantly, ours is a punishment-free institution.”
Ashraya, which operates from two different locations in Abhinav Bidanasi, Cuttack,has opened a new world for children with disabilities. Parents come from far-off places to leave their kids here as they are sure that they will be well cared for. Some local guardians also put up their children in Ashraya. On holidays, the inmates visit their families to be part of the festivities and spend some time together. Ashraya also accommodates orphans and destitute afflicted with mental retardation and cerebral palsy who are brought in by the Child Welfare Committee of the government. Several abandoned children who have found a home here are immobile, nonverbal or both. Among the 233 inmates, there are 25 children who were abandoned and 15 rescued missing children.”
Sujata says, “Parents who have a child with a disability have to deal with life-long adjustment. They must learn to tolerate, accept and rejoice with such children.The siblings also get affected. Disabilities result from a number of factors. When a child is born with disability, the family members are shattered and reluctant to take the care of the child. It’s important to know how a child with disability feels about his restricted life. A woman who has given birth to a disabled child faces the ire of in-laws and husband even though she is not responsible for it. Disturbed by the daily harassment she faces,such a mother often decides to abandon the child or end her life. She thinks, ‘If I am unwilling to look after my baby, why would others come forward to raise him’.”
Recalling an incident, Sujata says, “A six-month-old baby was found abandoned in a train four years ago. During investigation, it was found that the abandoned kid’s mother dumped her after she knew that her child had a disability. Child line handed over the child to me. He is now four years old and can talk and do things like normal children. Patience is the key to raising such kids which is often lacking among the parents. They don’t see any hope in such kids.”
Sujata once rescued a mentally-retarded kid who had been chained by his parents at home. “Acting on a tip-off, I went to the victim’s house to find out the truth. I was taken aback to see that he was chained by his parents so that he could not roam around. I asked his parents the reason and their response left me shell-shocked. They said: ‘We are helpless. Our society does not accept him. People misbehave with him and hurl stones. They make fun of him for being disabled. After hearing his plight, I took him to Ashraya. We noticed significant improvement in him after his stint with us. We took him back tohis place. However, things returned to square one again. His neighbours kept insulting him. I held a discussion with his neighbours and explained how a community should play a role in supporting such kids. Many children are born with disabilities because of genetic, environmental or unexplained reasons. Families who have a child with disability suffer emotional and economic hardships. People with disabilities are not included in the society. They are denied basic education or vocational training and thus do not have any scope of being employed. The exclusion of disabled people has a negative impact on the community.”
Sujata feels bad when couples return differently-abled kids after adopting them. “A couple from Delhi had adopted a kid from a Choudwar-based voluntary organisation. When they learnt that he was disabled, they returned the kid. Very few understand that these kids are special. It is important for every citizen to realise the need to include differently-abled children in mainstream society. One never knows if some of them will grow up to become a Hawking or an Einstein. We need to hold the hands of disabled people and take them along. It is time to make India a discrimination-free and inclusive society where the disabled have the right of space like all others,” she says.
Every differently-abled kid is a blessed child, says Sujata. She describes the case of Shrabani Nanda whose mother is physically-challenged while her father was a drunkard. As her mother found it hard to raise Shrabani, who could not walk properly, she contacted Sujata who took her to Ashraya. Thanks to Sujata, Shrabani underwent an operation and later was admitted to a normal school. Soon she will appear for the Class X examination in a government school. “She is a prodigy in the true sense. Not only she is good at studies, she has carved a space as a dancer and singer at the age of 15. Whenever her mother visits our organisation, she attributes her daughter’s success to me. If everybody comes forward to bring positive changes in the lives of people with disabilities, we can create many Shrabanis,” Sujata says.
RASHMI REKHA DAS, OP