Jai Vakeel Foundation – Striving for the Inclusion of Intellectually Disabled

Here’s a brief account of my experience teaching students at the JaiVakeel Foundation, Mumbai.

It was a long up-hill walk until I made it to the entrance. I had never really been to this side of the city and I was clueless about what I was going to come across in the next few minutes. When I reached the top of the curvy lane, I could see a huge entrance on my left, flanked with the bold and clear name Jai Vakeel Foundation, right below the blue and pink logo that looked brighter against the woody brown background. The moment I entered this gate, I could see an entirely different world. A huge campus, buses entering and exiting, an under-construction area, some students in their uniforms, walking around with smiles on their faces. I knew this visit was going to be interesting.

On my first visit, I was taken around the campus for a tour. That’s when I had probably made up my mind to spend more time with this organisation. The campus has different buildings, each one with a defined purpose and a team overseeing everything that takes place, just like you would get to see in any other school. In each classroom that I entered, I saw teachers diligently working with students on something, be it arts activity or academics. Every student greeted me with a welcoming smile. In the skill development center, I saw students making different products with the help of their teachers. Some students were weaving cloth and sewing, while others were making decorative products like cards, bags, candles and more.

Things worked out and I eventually joined the Jai Vakeel team. It seemed extremely challenging because I had not worked with students of different abilities at this scale before. Coming from a background of professional dancing and teaching students who aspire to learn dance at a professional level, I knew I had come to a place where some students wouldn’t even know what dance is all about.  

It was a big change for me that was probably needed at that time. I was in a stationary phase, where I no longer felt like I had a greater motive or objective to achieve. I was dancing, performing and teaching just the way I was doing 4 years ago. 

Shortly after joining, I spent my days understanding and observing students in every class, to come up with goals and lesson plans that would benefit them. I did reach a point where I felt like I am of no use to the organisation. At the time I joined Jai Vakeel, the foundation was preparing for its 75th-year celebration. To make the celebration special, the team gathered stories from different members of the organization and framed them in the corridor, where they could be easily accessible to everyone. That’s when I came across stories of people, who have dedicated their lives to this organization and would still choose to do what they are doing, despite all the other options given to them. Where do they get this motivation from? What is the driving force?

Some of these people have experienced worst things in life and yet they choose to smile against all odds, every single day. Their life experiences have enriched their beliefs instead of weakening them. They believe they can make a change and that’s why they do. But more than that, they are all together in a space, which allows changes to take place, encourages new approaches and allows them to voice out their feelings. They feel home. They feel they are with their family.

Jai Vakeel Foundation is truly a family of people, who live by the same values and the same objectives…”to make a change in the lives of children with special needs, to include them and to nurture them”. It is a family to those who have faced stigma and exclusion from society for the longest period. Homes like Jai Vakeel are working diligently to change that perception, to make inclusion a part of societal values and not just an option to choose from. I realized, it is their strong belief to look at these children’s’ abilities rather than disabilities which has enabled them to empower these children. It took 75 years of dedication and commitment to building a huge campus that serves the needs of these children. Everything that I saw on day one, was the result of those years and investment of teachers, caregivers, education team, healthcare team, volunteers, donors and many more associated with the organization.

Every day that I spent at Jai Vakeel, there was some achievement to celebrate – students confidently participating and winning sports and arts competitions, some students responding exceptionally well in their daily classwork, the election of school committee, the first batch of students passing their 10th standard examinations, students perfroming in their annual day function and the whole movement of making “inclusion” global.

Everything I experienced during my short teaching period at Jai Vakeel Foundation is going to stay with me for life. The uninhibited smiles that I used to see around me when I would enter the class, the welcoming gesture of parents of these children, the quick appreciation I would receive when they would enjoy my class, the absolute unexpected hugs from the little ones, the effort students would make to listen to me when I would teach them, the desire to learn, the brief smiles followed by prolonged stares, the slight physical movement acknowledging that they know me…all of it is priceless.

This experience brought back the simple joy of dancing back into my life, which I had initially started with. It motivated me to believe and build a larger picture of my goal of dancing. It helped me free myself from self-doubts. I learned more than I could give back to these children and the entire team.

I am extremely grateful for all of it!

Picture source: JaiVakeel