India blog part 10

I woke up this morning to find that one of the finished French knitting pieces had been turned into an attractive table decoration with a couple of pine cones:


I had another good session with the local teachers this morning, sharing with them as many strategies as I could think of for teaching students with learning disabilities, and slower learners. There was time at the end for questions, and they asked some really thoughtful ones, including sharing actual situations they were facing in their current classes. I’m aware of how much harder it is for them here, with no SENCO, no learning support department, no teaching assistants and no supportive, or even interested, parents. Everything comes down to the classroom teacher alone and unaided – setting targets, writing the IEP, implementing it and taking responsibility for the teaching and learning. I had to remind them that as long as they know they are making their best efforts in teaching and giving the students every opportunity, they mustn’t take on board any guilt for students who refuse to engage with the learning process or only turn up on a couple of days a week. I managed to take a better photo today of a typical classroom in this school:


I just had time for a very hasty lunch before I had to take a taxi to my afternoon engagement, a talk entitled “Who matters and why?”, to be given to a group of Indian and Swedish businesswomen. Maybe the fact that the taxi driver couldn’t find the address from which he was to collect me should have been a warning. At any rate, I had a highly entertaining journey. He eventually turned up, a little over 10 minutes late. There were seat belts in the back of the taxi but nothing to plug them into, so I settled back and braced myself for a bumpy ride. We had gone less than a mile when he thrust his smart phone, with a map on the screen, into my hands, and began pointing at it and talking excitedly in Hindi. I handed it back to him and said, “I don’t speak any Hindi, I’ve never used a smart phone and I have no idea where we’re going. I’m relying on you to get me there.”

I don’t know how much of this he understood, but he was so perturbed by it that he stopped in the middle of the road clutching his phone and staring blankly until an angry queue of motorists had formed behind us, all honking furiously. He started off again, but kept stopping and staring at his phone, always with the same result – much honking, no better idea of where to take me. (I should add that my phone has stopped working, so I had no means of contacting anybody if I ended up in some mysterious and unidentified part of the city.)  As soon as he could, he pulled off the road, parked, and started making phonecall after phonecall, apparently to the taxi company, all his friends and for all I know his grandmother’s cat, in the hope of finding someone who could tell him the route. Eventually he seemed to have a lightbulb moment and put his phone in the holder where he could actually see it and follow the sat nav. I was concerned to see it was predicting a 47 minute journey, and I was due to be there in 35 minutes, but there was nothing I could do about it so I sat back to enjoy the journey. The sat nav kept recalculating the time until we had almost caught up – we were nearing the venue and it looked as if we were going to arrive on time.

We approached a roundabout, and the sat nav said go straight on, so he turned right. I gesticulated that he needed to go the other way, so he did a complete circuit of the roundabout and took the road he should have taken. It seemed we were nearing the destination, but I wasn’t convinced he had put the precise address into the sat nav, as I couldn’t see the venue in the place where the sat nav suggested it should be. He drove on past the sat nav’s suggested destination, and realising it wasn’t where he thought, he turned left, then left, then left again to drive round the block, stopping every few yards to keep asking people if they knew where it was. I suppose by the laws of probability it was inevitable that eventually one of them would know, and I was quite relieved when someone pointed at a building just across the road and said, “That’s it.” I was doubly relieved to see my hostess waiting outside for me, and was safely escorted into the building, only about 10 minutes later than I had said I would arrive, and 20 minutes before my talk was due to start.

I spoke to the women about what society regards as success, and asked how we could value the contributions made to society by people whose disabilities are so severe that they will never be economically productive. We explored the topic in quite some depth, partly because I had prepared quite a lot of material but also because the women were keen to engage with the topic, and had lots of questions and comments. I talked about how disabled employees are good for businesses, citing the example of what Randy Lewis has done at Walgreens in the USA (Google it if you don’t know the story) but also looked at the value of people who contribute love and joy to our lives, provide employment for carers, call forth our care and compassion that might otherwise lie dormant, and teach us by example what it is to face and accept our own brokenness, recognise our need of others, and allow that to lead us to live in community.

I asked them to imagine (since we were in a Swedish owned venue) that a survey of thousands of people living in Sweden had found them to be the happiest people in the world, with 99% happy and content with their lives, 97% liking themselves the way they are, and 97% saying they have good relationships with their family. I suggested that everyone would want to move to Sweden. Then I asked, would anyone suggest that such people should be exterminated? I went on to explain that a survey of thousands of people with Down’s syndrome and their families has shown exactly those statistics – and yet society seems to be trying to exterminate them in the womb. And I asked why we would want to get rid of the happiest people in the world. I pointed out that someone like Ellen lives in the moment, without fretting over the past or worrying about the future. She isn’t troubled by guilt or regrets. She feels no pressure to conform or achieve. And I asked how many of us wouldn’t like to be able to live like that – and yet we call people like her disadvantaged!

Two of the women present were actively involved in disability inclusion in their companies, and shared some of what they had been doing. But for the others present, this was an entirely new perspective which they agreed they had not previously considered. One said afterwards that it had made her completely rethink her attitude to intellectually impaired people, and asked if I would come and speak to their group again next time I come to India. So it was clear it had given them food for thought, and who knows, perhaps they will be able to go back and share some of what they heard, and begin to encourage changes in the culture of their companies towards disabled people. I felt it was a very worthwhile engagement and was very grateful to the lady who had organised it, for giving me such a fantastic opportunity. Thankfully she also ran me home so I didn’t have quite such an adventurous return journey!


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