The idea of ‘Samaaveshi’

How an incident in the aftermath of Nepal earthquake in 2015 changed the course of our lives!

Four months after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, I was sent on an assignment to document emergency response at Sangachok, a hilly village approx. 100 km north-east of Kathmandu. As I arrived there, I was guided by a local social worker to a site where a three-storey public school had collapsed completely. A huge crane was installed to clear the rubble that had pieces of broken classroom furniture scattered all over. Fortunately, the tragedy struck on a Saturday, a weekly holiday in Nepal. It’s hard to imagine the scale of destruction had the quake struck on a school day. Nevertheless, by late August 2015, Nepal was recovering from the aftermath of the tragedy, and the focus gradually shifted from immediate rescue and relief to long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation, even as millions continued to live in makeshift shelters and cracked homes.

An hour later, we climbed down a steep lane to arrive at a makeshift school where children attended lessons in classrooms made up of bamboo and tarpaulins, right next to the main road where vehicles breezed past every few seconds. My heart went out to the young kids who escaped one deadly disaster but could be part of another fatal incident any moment.

A little further, as we ventured into the community, we met a 10-year-old girl who sustained spinal injuries during the quake and was sitting quietly on a wheelchair, outside her makeshift home. Asked why she’s at home and not attending school, the girl replied with teary eyes, “My school collapsed during the earthquake.” Incidentally, she studied at the same school that was destroyed on the fateful day. ‘But aren’t children from that school studying in a temporary set-up nearby?’ I asked. “Yes, but I’m not allowed to attend that school. It’s not meant for disabled children like me…” she mumbled as tears rolled down her face.

The incident shook me to the core. I was appalled that even after a massive disaster where one could become disabled in a matter of seconds, people had no empathy for persons with disabilities. What would possibly go wrong if the young girl was allowed to sit in the classroom together with other children? That evening, as I returned to Kathmandu, I thought long and hard about the incident, and my role as a social worker with an international charity (CBM). Why do we exclude persons with disabilities from mainstream activities? What would it take for schools to accommodate both children with and without disabilities in the same classroom? Can a school be built with inclusion, empathy and compassion at its core?

I returned home with a heavy heart and shared the incident with my wife (Nivedita Tiwari – she holds a Masters degree in ‘Disability Studies and Action’ from TISS, Mumbai). Over the next days and weeks, we started brainstorming on how to tackle this problem of discrimination and exclusion among children with disabilities to access basic education nd healthcare. As we dug deeper, we found that a variety of factors ranging from accessibility to lack of classroom resources and trained teachers, to stigma and negative attitudes of fellow classmates and school staff, all of which contribute to alarmingly low enrolment and high dropout among children with disabilities. The result is a global phenomenon wherein children with disabilities form the largest ‘out-of-school’ group. (According to a UN report released in 2015, out of 2.9 million children with disabilities in India, 990,000 children aged 6 to 14 years (34%) are out of school.)

After a long discussion, Nivedita and I came up with the idea to set-up ‘Samaaveshi Pathshaala’ – an inclusive school where children with and without disabilities study together in the same classroom. But how would children with multiple disabilities study in a common classroom? For example, can a child with visual impairment study together with a child with speech and hearing impairment, or with developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy? We then started to explore schools that adopt ‘multi-sensory learning approach’ to look for new ideas and innovations to teach  and engage children with diverse learning needs, and varying abilities within the same classroom.

Meanwhile, even as we explored ideas and potential locations to set-up our dream inclusive school, Nepal was going through a serious socio-political turmoil. A country united by natural disaster was deliberately divided by short-term politics and propaganda, just months after the earthquake. Within a span of two months, over 40 ethnic Madhesis were killed by security forces in the run up to the launch of the new constitution. Given the circumstances, we realized that mere inclusion on the grounds of ability-disability was not enough. If we dream of a truly inclusive society, we need to practice a true inclusive education system. An inclusive school therefore has to accommodate all children, irrespective of their social backgrounds or disabilities.

By the end of 2015, Nivedita and I were sure of our mission: to set-up ‘Samaaveshi’ and gradually build it into an organization that promotes inclusion education at scale. Schools are a ‘microcosm’ of society, and the journey to build an inclusive society starts from an inclusive classroom. Thus, the roadmap was clear: to quit our jobs and set-off on a new journey called Samaaveshi where children in their formative years are taught about diversity, empathy and inclusion, as much as they learn mainstream subjects at school.

At the outset, this is a powerful solution to fight the problem of low enrolment and high dropout among children from marginalized sections, including those with disabilities. The long-term impact is: each child from such an inclusive school would grow up into an individual with an ‘inclusive mindset’, knowledge and skills to take forward this movement of inclusion and inclusive education – and gradually build an inclusive future. As Desmond Tutu says, “Inclusive, good-quality education is a foundation for dynamic and equitable societies.”

In the subsequent years, life took several turns as Nivedita and I moved from Kathmandu to New Delhi. Yet, we continued to chase our dream by building networks and exploring organizations that work on inclusive education. In September 2017, we became parents to a baby boy, Aditya. While Nivedita took care of the infant, I took time out to scout for possible locations to establish ‘Samaaveshi’. Between travel and field assignments, I quietly explored remote places around Mumbai and Bhopal, to understand the status of children with disabilities and their access to education.

Eventually, in late 2017, we decided to set-up our project in KARJAT, a tribal block on the outskirts of Mumbai (approx 100 km from both Mumbai and Pune); and closer to our alma mater, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) where Nivedita and I had led a two-day disability simulation workshop in 2011, called ‘Challenging Challenges’, with guidance from the ‘Centre for Disability Studies and Action’).

On 15th September 2018, as Aditya turned one, we moved to Karjat for good. After a series of challenges and roadblocks, we somehow managed to rent a two-room space in #KASHELE: a bustling market place on Karjat – Murbad Road, and a strategic intersection that connects over 50 tribal villages in Karjat block.

On 3rd December 2018, on the occasion of ‘World Disability Day’, we formally inaugurated ‘Samaaveshi Pathshaala’ – an inclusive kindergarten with a total of 12 children aged 3-8 years, including six children with disabilities (one child with ADHD), two with Speech and Hearing impairments, and three children with mild to severe Cerebral Palsy), from five villages in and around Kashele (images attached below).

A dream of three years finally came true… The idea called Samaaveshi became a reality!

Written by:
Ashok Shah
Co-founder, Samaaveshi