Namit (name changed) was ready for discharge after a 3 month stay at our spinal injuries rehabilitation center. But instead of joy, I sensed restlessness on his face. Responding to my best wishes and “you better study well”, he whispered in a worried tone – “Dad is planning to home school me; I’d be allowed to go to school only for exams, can you please talk to them?” Working a way out for all his problems was my job as his physio, but this one was a little too difficult to handle.
The shy fourteen year old came to our rehab center after a surgery to correct his extensively bent spine, a condition called scoliosis. He had started to develop this condition at ten years of age which had made running impossible and even walking difficult for him. But following the surgery, which corrected the bending, he developed paralysis down his waist and tightness in his legs.
Working on his physical impairments was both fun and challenging. While it was fun to see him speed his wheelchair away as his mom tried to run with a cut pomegranate behind him; it was challenging to get him to perform well at therapy as he would never eat well and have very little endurance.
Every decision in planning his rehabilitation goals revolved around making him independent enough to go to school. By the time of discharge he was up and about with a walker. He had progressed significantly from the post surgery phase, but his walking was still slow and strained. It was not going to be easy for him to go to school and play with friends like 5 years ago, but it was definitely possible!
With ten minutes in hand before he leaves to the station, I couldn’t have changed his father’s mind. His father’s decision, I knew with experience, had deeper routes than what could seem to an outsider like an indifference towards education and schooling.
Let me draw you a picture of what a normal day at school is like for kids like Namit, with varied disabilities. Boarding the bus/ auto / rickshaw safely and disembarking at the school need special care and assistance from the driver, conductor, parents and neighbours. Reaching classrooms on upper floors with no lifts and ramps and making it safely to the toilets with narrow doorways and steps at the entrance require an attendant. Sitting for hours of classes and examinations when the medical condition needs breaks, calls for patient and understanding teachers. Sick days off school affecting attendance rules and policy adjustments need a wise and enthusiastic Principal.
Going gets tougher if there are bullies at school and teachers who vent their frustration by taunting the child. And then there are the relatives and neighbours who warn parents of calamities that can happen at school, seeming to be wishing hard for things to go wrong. With all these factors alongside the medical debts and mortgages that parents are working hard to repay , homeschooling seems like a valid alternative.
I consoled Namit saying, “I’ll tell them what I can and you try your best to convince them” knowing very well that neither could change the father’s mind. Just then a loud angry voice filled my head. It did not cease as I continued to talk to him, like the screeching noise from a microphone that refuses to behave right.
IT IS NOT OKAY TO HOME SCHOOL – went the voice. All these months of rehab, only to deprive the child of the one thing that gives him so much joy? Teaching him words out of a bundle of pages in closed walls could replace the school environment, you think? Making the child feel disabled by locking him inside a house and then empowering him by giving certificates of merit for clearing exams?
Home schooling is like pulling a child out of the cricket ground and gifting him a gaming console. Educating at home might be a nice alternative that the government used to support for such children, but teaching in a secluded environment waters down the very essence of education. It might teach the child how to make sense of physics and math, which is important I agree, but it will never build a confident happy individual. The warmth and tempering that the fresh clay like mind receives at school can’t compare to the nurturing by a tuition teacher coming home.
I felt helpless, like the many times before. When I worked with Haemophilia unit, most of my (and my co-therapists’) therapy time went in explaining the importance of overcoming the fear of bleeds and sending the child to school. Yet, when kids came for follow-up, we realised that our attempts were futile. Only a handful of financially secure families and a few poor parents with good government medical facilities nearby, sent their children to school.
I stood there feeling that I had failed as a therapist as Namit left Rehab. But then there is only so much a doctor, a social worker, a therapist or a medical institute can do. The ball soon after a differently able child’s discharge goes into the mad wild world, and remains there. It is now for the society to shape the child’s future.
To tell you about the less dismal side of things, I know young people who make it to school and college despite the complex dynamics that surround the process. I have a friend who goes to college and every morning her friends make a temporary ramp for her so that she can negotiate the few stairs at the entrance. I have a friend who lives alone in the US to pursue his Masters education. I also have met parents of kids with Haemophilia who send their children to school as they wait patiently knowing that their child could have bled at school and that would mean an emergency. I know a spinal injured rehabilitated girl who’s Principal has made several special arrangements including arranging his own car and driver to bring her from hostel to college. I also know of a bus conductor who carried a child into the bus, packed the wheelchair and then disembarked the child safely at school, every single days, several years in a row.
So then what could it really take to send Namit to school? A rehab centre and good medical care? Yes. But more than that, understanding neighbours, concerned relatives, supportive schools, sensitive classmates, perseverant parents and a strong heart were needed.
That night I dreamt about a child walking with a walker around the corridors of something like a government school in a small village. It must have been him! I hope he makes it someday.