“Hello!” Replies wheelchair-bound Arun Agrawal to my greetings with a soft voice and a wide infectious smile.
The 12-year-old boy with twinkles in his eyes extends his hands, twisted inward from wrists, for a handshake as I approach towards him.
His hand grip is feeble, however, coveys across a confident persona within him.
Arun, whose lower body is almost immobile, is a class two student. He comes everyday to study at “Prateek”, a voluntary day-care centre serving special children in Indian capital New Delhi’s little backward pocket called Nangloi.
He’s been coming to the centre for the last two years, to study and learn skills that will help him to be self-dependent and eventually prepare him to become what he wants to be.
“I dream of becoming a doctor, a pediatrician and treat children when I grow up,” says Arun.
But for the time being he enjoys reading storybooks. “I love reading stories in Hindi,” quips Arun.
Music is another hobby he pursues wholeheartedly. Singing along with other children in the class and playing musical instruments is what he enjoys the most.
“I love playing drums,” pat comes the answer. Motor training at the institute is helping him to get a grip in his hands.
He demonstrates his musical talent by singing “Jan Gan man adhinayak jai Hey, bharat Bhagya vidhata” the national anthem of India in rhythmic and melodious tone.
This is the first time in his 12 years’ life that he has ever been sent out from his home to be at a school.
“While at Prateek, he learns the basics of Hindi, English, mathematics, science and general knowledge. It’s here he is learning to socialise and make friends” says Reeta Saxena, the in-charge of the institute.
“In the past two years, Arun has gained a lot of confidence and has been making a steady progress in his studies,” says Saxena with pride.
Friendly and bright Arun has a pet name. “Everyone at home calls me Chotu (small boy). I have one elder sister and a younger brother. I love spending time with them and my parents. While at home, I watch cartoons and films,” says Arun.
“My favourite films are “Bhoot (Ghost) Uncle” and Bhootnath (Ghost),” says Arun with a chuckle when probed further.
Arun is among 50 other, from four to 24 years old, at the institute. These specially-abled are either deaf and dumb or physically and mentally challenged.
Nagendra, 24, is one such who is mentally challenged with a 10-year old’s mental age. However, he has not been as fortunate as Arun to get an inclusive and caring environment at home.
“Narendra doesn’t have mother and his father is a compulsive alcoholic,” says Saxena.
At home he has two married brothers, one elder and the other younger who would be locked in at home for most of the time, says Saxena.
However, Narendra likes his elder brother’s wife as “she gives me food,” says he with a smile.
Until eight months ago before he joined the centre “he would be chained for the fear of running away.”
Finally it was one of his aunts, whose cerebral palsy daughter is enrolled at the centre, who intervened and persuaded his family to send him to the centre.
Coming to the institute was his first exposure to the outside world. “Thus first interaction and socialisation with people outside his house in over two decades,” says Saxena.
While here at the centre, he is learning to break away from isolation he was subjected to for over two decades.
“I have made two friends here. I love to be here at the centre. I feel sleepy at home,” says Nagendra. “I study, eat lunch and learn singing at the centre,” says Narendra with a smile though shying to make an eye contact.
“His progress in the past eight months has been heartening. Earlier, he did not use to respond to things coherently. But now he understands and answers to questions,” says Saxena.
At the centre he is learning how to write and read at a slow but steady pace. But he has made fast progress in sharpening his hidden talent--Singing.
Request him to sing, he would sing his favourite hymn in praise of Hindu monkey God Hanuman “Jai Hanuman Gyan gunsagar, jai kapeesh tihun lok ujagar” in captivating soulful voice.
“Further training can help Narendra to enhance his singing skills and make music as his career option,” feels Saxena.
His orientation to music is obvious. He likes listening to Bollywood film songs and if given a chance would like to watch a movie of his favourite star Shahrukh Khan.
Ask what he wants to become as. “A ustad (master) who beats evils,” says he with a chuckle.
Perhaps his dream would help him to beat and overcome all the challenges and find a new meaning to life.
Arun and Nagendra are among over 21 million people in India with disabilities, including visual, hearing, speech, locomotor and mental.
And a 75 per cent of them live in rural areas and a majority of them don’t have any access to learning and training facilities which would equip them with life-saving skills and thus bring them into mainstream.
In India, only nearly half of the disabled population is literate and just 34 per cent of them are employed, emphasizing that a lot more needs to be done to include differently abled people into society.