Beating the handicap

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

At a camp for the disabled, it was adventure with a difference.

in Samsing

Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

- `Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', Thomas Gray

IT was an adventure camp with a difference. The participants were not robust youth pitting their strength and skill against natural obstacles. Rather, it was a group of 78 young people, mostly children, overcoming impediments far more difficult, and undertaking challenges far more daunting. The 13th All India Nature Study cum Adventure Camp for disabled children and youth at the Samsing forest in north Bengal should have been an enriching and humbling experience for the vast multitude of people who take their faculties for granted.

The camp, organised by the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation (HNAF), was held from November 18 to 24, and had participants from West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Among the institutions that took part in the camp were the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Sanchar and the Kiran Society of Benares.

A typical day at the camp would begin at 5-30 a.m. with the participants helping themselves to bed tea or milk, followed by a round of light exercises and morning walk. Camp work would start after breakfast at 8-30 p.m. Under the supervision of their respective guides, each group would proceed to different destinations or embark on projects such as tent-making, rope-knotting, and building of shelters with branches and twigs. An adventure sport of a nature suitable to each group is arranged in a separate location.

At no time was the children's joy and unity more evident than during a picnic organised for the hearing- and speech-impaired participants. After an exhausting round of trekking, rock-climbing and river-crossing, the children settled down to have food by the rocky banks of a mountain stream. It was perhaps the quietest group of picnickers ever; their silent camaraderie was broken only by the murmur of the stream. Smiling with genuine happiness and communicating with each other through signs and gestures, they seemed the happiest lot in the world. The little ones would play hide-and-seek between the rocks or race with the stream, while the older participants kept a watchful eye on them. The sense of belonging was overwhelming - they understood each other's special language perfectly.

At around 4-30 p.m., the groups would reassemble in the camp and play blindman's bluff, tug-of-war, frisbee or cricket. In the evenings, they would gather under a big awning, and the children would put up impromptu performances. One could not help notice how a particular disability was compensated by the superior functioning of another faculty. For example, the hearing- and speech-impaired children outperformed the others in miming, and the vision-impaired sang beautifully. The positive impact of the camp was evident in the enthusiasm with which the children recounted the day's experience; they would not omit the minutest detail. By nine, it was bedtime.

The children were divided into five groups according to their disabilities. Each group was given a name - children with poor mobility became `leopards', the group of hearing- and speech-impaired children was called the `mynahs', the vision-impaired became `deer', the mentally challenged `tigers', and the orphans `hornbills'. Each group had supervisors, who, at the end of the camp, would prepare a performance sheet both for the group as a whole and for the individuals.

At the first camp, held 12 years ago, the orphans were not put in a separate group. But that experiment proved disastrous; the orphans found it difficult to adjust with the children from affluent families. Animesh Basu, founder-member of the HNAF, said: "The orphans felt isolated and became withdrawn. That was when we decided never to do this again, and instead put them in the disabled camp. For these orphans are, whether we like it or not, socially disabled." In their new environment, the `socially disabled' children not only fitted in well, but also went out of their way to look after their physically handicapped companions. "These children can now see, despite the sadness of their situation, how much more fortunate they are than a lot of other people,'' said Basu.

For 14-year-old Deborjit Chattoraj, suffering from cerebral palsy, the camp was a dream come true. "Now that I have grown old, my parents cannot take me out any more. Here I am always outdoors and am getting to go to so many beautiful places,'' he told Frontline. For Deborjit, nicknamed Kabi (poet) at home, the camp was his first trip away from family. "Sometimes I miss them, but only sometimes, because I love it so much here. I am trying to remember every single detail here, because my grandfather told me, `Kabi, come back and tell us all about your experiences'.''

Laxmi Mukherjee, senior special educator, Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, who accompanied the children, said: "The trip has certainly made the children more confident. This is for the first time that they are staying away from their homes for so long. Initially, they were all insecure and unsure of the whole thing. But within a couple of days they began to come out of their shells and take part in what is going on and enjoy themselves.''

Their sense of belonging and togetherness was manifest in small gestures. For example, Sarda, a local girl with cerebral palsy, who participated in the camp, was too poor to afford even a pair of shoes, let alone a wheelchair. Seeing her plight, one of the children offered to share his wheelchair with her. Although it would have caused him inconvenience, he never complained.

One of the most striking features of the camp was the tremendous sense of bonding and care among the youngsters. The speech-impaired children took it upon themselves to look after those on wheelchairs, the orphans would gently guide the visually handicapped, or explain things to the hearing-impaired. However, what was most fascinating was the kind of confidence and sense of independence that the experience generated in the participants. They no longer huddled together in little circles as they did at first, but went out of their way to interact with each other and take part in the camp activities. According to Subhasis Dutta, programme officer, Sanchar, there was a marked change in the attitude and outlook of the children after their arrival at the camp. Laloo Mandal, a visually impaired participant was known to be of a depressed and uncommunicative nature. In the initial days, he lacked confidence and depended heavily on others to move around. "But within a couple of days he became more confident, and was seen moving within the camp premises without the help of others," Dutta said.

"This experience also teaches them to look beyond themselves. A little boy with impaired vision told me how sad he felt for those who could neither speak nor hear. Similarly a hearing-impaired girl said it was a pity that the visually impaired could not see all the natural beauty surrounding them,'' said Basu.

Initially the HNAF camps were meant only for normal children. "Then one year a hearing-impaired girl participated and did remarkably well. It was then that we decided to have a camp only for the disabled,'' said Basu. "Initially we were hard-pressed for money. At times we even thought of discontinuing it, but somehow managed to carry on,'' he said.

It became easier for the organisation when large institutions such as the Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy (IICP) began to take part in the camp. Thanks to the efforts of Chandragola Pandey, Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the recent camp was co-sponsored by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). Besides, the camp received a lot of support from the Forest Department and the police. Yet, the entry fee - of Rs.600 - is too expensive for the underprivileged. "We have specifically asked the institutions to bring in as many underprivileged disabled children as possible. This year there was the highest number of them," said Basu.

On the last night of the camp, a huge bonfire was lit and the children and the supervisors took turns to perform skits and sing songs. The sparse community living in and around the Samsing forest graced the occasion voluntarily and cheered and sang along. A large graffiti containing the drawings and observations of the children was put up. A poem by 16-year-old Rajesh Kumar Kaniji, who came from Benares despite his polio-affected legs, just about sums up the spirit: "Look, a new morning dawns... Look at the beautiful flowers bloom".

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