Zeroing in on the right profession is not easy for anybody; and in the case of intellectually challenged people, it is even more difficult. No one is more aware if this than parents of challenged individuals. "Without something concrete to occupy their minds, their intellectual impairment worsens. Even more than their able counterparts, our children badly need a vocation", says Lakshmi Sarma, mother of Raghuram, 25, an intellectually challenged young man.
Another fear that haunts the parents is the fate of the children after their death. Who will take care of them when devoted parents are no longer alive and siblings get busy with their own lives?
A novel solution to this problem is underway in Chennai: The SAI (Strategy and Action for Independence) Trust. The site is a modest tenement in Pallikaranai, an eastern suburb of the metropolis. A printing machine drones in the background. Durai, a professional printer stands alongside the machine instructing Rijay, 27, on which knobs to turn. Raghuram, Srinivasan, Praveen, Narayanan and other intellectually challenged young people are sorting sheets of paper, filing them, punching holes in spiral pads, making file holders.
The mothers hover around but refrain from interfering. "Our children need to learn to do it on their own if they are to have a vocation that sustains them after we are gone," says Parvathi, whose son, Narayanan, 29, is one of the 'children' who works at this establishment.
As you enter the longitudinal three-room building that the Trust has rented, you notice stacks of files, folders, file holders, spiral bound notebooks, printed sheets, envelopes, cards... an assortment of office stationery. The Trust's clientele now includes major corporations like TCS, Alcatel, KYM and Besmark, but the list needs to be longer to make a neat profit.
"There is the rent for the building and the salary of the printer, repayment of the loan for the color offset printing machine, overheads like electricity ...There isn't a lot of money left over. Every now and then, whenever we make a profit, we give some money to the children so that they enjoy the thrill of getting paid for their work," says R.P. Sarma, Lakshmi's husband who, after retirement, has been devoting himself to the Trust.
It all started in 2004. "My son was in a special school at the Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu. It was fine for the time being. But I was growing anxious about what would happen to him when my husband and I are gone. Who would drop him and fetch him from the special school, pay his bills, take care of him...?" recalls Lakshmi.
Generally, challenged children at special schools have to move out by the time they turn 21. What is to be done next is the big question that their parents face. "Society needs to answer this question," says Lakshmi.
However, Lakshmi did not leave it to society to figure out a solution. She got the mothers of a few of her son's schoolmates together and bounced the idea of creating a professional establishment that would provide employment to their children. So, Lakshmi, Padma Ragunathan, Hema Sadagoppan, Vaidehi, Parvathi and a few others got together to start this Trust on the lines of a self-help group. "We decided on a printing unit because all these children had been learning printing at the special school they went to," Lakshmi says.
"Some of us dropped out due to various reasons. For instance, the daily commute to the Trust was too difficult and expensive for some, as these children have to be escorted to and fro," Lakshmi points out. She dreams now of buying a van and engaging a driver to ferry the children.
A simple task like coordinating both hands to align the sheets on the punching machine can be a big challenge for some of these children. But they have learnt it by now, after years of practice. And as Lakshmi says, such children have their limits; they cannot work overtime and deliver a sudden requirement of goods. They need more time than 'normal' people. "But we can do a quality job and satisfy the regular and ongoing stationary requirements most companies have by way of printed material, files, notepads, etc. Even if a few corporate houses give just 10 per cent of their office stationary requirements to us, it would be enough to sustain us," Sarma observes.
The SAI Trust also hopes to set up a permanent shelter for these children, with the money for its maintenance and salaries for attendants to the children being generated by the Trust's printing press.
These 'children' are in their 20s, making the description 'children' inaccurate. But they are not adults either. "Sometimes, we feel they are children; at other times, they seem grown up. Watching them gives you a pang in the heart," says Parvathi.
"These children can be useful members of the society if they are given the opportunity. But without a vocation, they will end up becoming problems for the community," says Lakshmi, adding, "We (mothers) have got together to create this mechanism that could make them useful to the community. We now expect society to respond." These mothers don't want alms for their children. They just want business opportunities.
(The SAI Trust can be reached at 2, 4th Main Road, Rajesh Nagar, Pallikaranai, Chennai - 601 302. Phone: (044) 64544221/24910090 / 9282139840. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)