The name hardly matters. Whether we call them partially abled or mentally challenged, it only reflects our attitude towards them,” begins Ms Zoraida Samuel, Managing Trustee of Rehoboth, a home for the mentally challenged women in Chennai. Leaders from the social development sector have expounded the challenges in managing a home, but with mentally challenged individuals, home transcends to shelter,training centre, workplace, and more. It is a place where their inherent abilities and personalities that were never looked at by others are honed to make them independent and productive members in the society.
Rehoboth is one such home. It started as a shelter for 2 women in a rented house. The desire to care for these women was born during her days of graduation in Psychology. “My placement with an opportunity school required me to work on the social and emotional environment, intelligence quotient of the special children and the kind of special education they needed. Academic work apart, I was shocked by my observations there,” remarks Zoraida, who goes on to explain the situation that moved her conscience.
“Adolescent children who were mentally challenged were not wanted at home. They were not seen as children, or as individuals who were different in terms of needs and functionality, but as liabilities. It was too raw for me to buy that. I immediately decided to do something for them.”
Experience during her Post Graduation in Psychiatric Social Work threw her to the plane of acute abandoning by families. Adding to this trauma, which the victims may not even realize sometimes, is the exploitation they face on the streets after being abandoned. Her tenure in Little Drops, an NGO that provides care and shelter for the abandoned elderly, as Project Coordinator for four years, opened doors for further thinking and reflection. When two mentally challenged abandoned women were brought to Little Drops, the organization expressed its inability to accommodate them as they were not equipped to meet the needs of these people. Zoraida was on instantly. She decided to do something for these women. “A friend of mine came forward to give her house on rent. That’s how Rehoboth was born,” recollects an emotional Zoraida.
In the first two years, she managed to work at Little Drops and take care of these women. “The number of inmates grew and I quit my work at Little Drops. I knew it was a call from the almighty and I decided to serve these women,” she says. Rehoboth, registered as a Public Charitable Trust in 1998, Chennai, branched out in a short period to meet different needs of its inmates. Abandoned women who are rescued from streets are referred by police and also by NGOs. “Intriguingly, the increasing number in the home prompted me to plan a visit to other organizations that worked for mental health,” shares Zoraida, who concluded that almost all of them worked for children, and that needs of such adults were not paid enough attention to. This is when Rehoboth made a decision to focus on mentally challenged adults. Men and women from this group had different needs beginning with infrastructure. This along with the concern of sexual abuse women were subjected to, pushed Rehoboth to work for mentally challenged women specifically.
“These women were only moderately challenged, capable of caring for self, but were never given the requisite exposure or even toilet training. Most of the families, even before exploring the affordable options available, conclude that they cannot afford any treatment. Once the mother dies, the mentally challenged women are left on the streets,” she despises. Her calmness is back the moment she begins to talk of her inmates’ capabilities. “Some of them exhibit extraordinary intellectual abilities; they value relationships, express feelings, and long to belong somewhere—just like you and me,” her words resonates the pain she feels for them.
The home at Paraniputhur today hosts 180 women, who are trained to take up simple responsibilities here. ‘The residents are trained in: handicraft making, tailoring, embroidery and candle making. Orders are taken for weddings and other occasions for flowers and embroidery works. The ability of the inmates in learning and performing in an organized manner encouraged the board to build another shelter that provides vocational rehabilitation. Thus a rehabilitation shelter with dairy, poultry and vegetable cultivation was initiated in a farmland in Somangalam village. The income from the sale of farm products in their outlet called ‘ASAI and PUTHUMAI’ is pooled in to meet the running expenses of both the homes. Besides the economic aspect, engaging the inmates in these activities also make it therapeutic for their behavioral problems. Farm products, donated and usable house-hold articles are sold after minor repairs, besides products produced at the rehabilitation centre.
The first step in rehabilitation is a complete health check-up which makes the organisation understand their needs and assess the institution’s capacity to meet them. All inmates are tested for HIV, pregnancy, infections, diseases and others and in the case of pregnant women, Rehoboth follows a tailored approach so that their children are not affected in any way. Presently, under the project ARISE, the child and mother are given a separate room. While the mother is under constant medical supervision and undergoes vocational training, the child is allowed to lead a normal life. “All the children born to these women are normal. But, a new concern has emerged. Every other person that these children interact with is mentally challenged. As this is not healthy for child development, we are working towards providing a separate facility for these children so that the programme does not create an institutionalized system,” says Zoraida.
Rehoboth has also opened a special school for special children from poor communities, as part of its prevention programme. This centre provides them with the much needed rehabilitation and therapy which they cannot afford otherwise. The fundamental concern is to prevent abuse and exploitation of mentally challenged women when their guardians are away at work. Talking of sustainability, Zoraida explains that meeting the operational costs is a huge challenge. “In order to sustain a life of quality, most of our residents need psychiatric and neurological medication. Associated problems like epilepsy, physical disabilities and motor skill coordination need to be addressed with specific professional help. With no government help and foreign aid, we have been able to run the home at a monthly expense of three lakh rupees through contributions from friends and donors.”
The journey is still on. Rehoboth is working tirelessly to bring in cheers in the lives of mentally challenged women and make the general public realize what it takes to make them smile. After all, they have always wanted to live as part of us.
Can we now see them as partially abled?