Updated: Jul 31
A to-be-published book about life and work at Vidya Sagar
An NGO of 38 years, working with people with disabilities, their families and the community. From its inception to now, how it has evolved into a oceanic organisation, impacting so many lives.
Evolution of an idea called Vidya Sagar
Written by Poonam Natarajan and Sudha Ramamoorthy
It is rightly said that the bedrock of any organisation is the idea from which it germinated and struck root. From there on it grows, evolves an identity, and develops a work-culture of its own that is worthy of emulation. You could compare its growth to that of a tree which spreads its branches, shares its fruit, and provides shade and shelter for those who seek it.
Our story is quite like that of a sapling that grew into a sturdy, benevolent and inclusive tree. When it started out in 1985 Vidya Sagar had a rather tentative beginning. It was then just a `Centre’ and had not even acquired its present name. Simply put, it was a facility for children with cerebral palsy, with a focus on working with families, to transfer skills for their child and demystify the condition. The idea was to primarily empower families and to create a positive acceptance for the child with disability.
The culture and values evolved with time. But they were strongly rooted in my own philosophy and learning. These were shaped in great measure by my alma mater, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where my husband and I were classmates. In fact, we were students of the first MA batch of the University in 1972. We grew together in our thinking and in our choices.
At JNU, we learnt equality and integrity, the importance of questioning and not simply accepting what was presented. Sharing kn
owledge and testing out ideas, and the spirit of collaboration rather than competition was what we imbibed in its hallowed portals. It built a sense of camaraderie -- even if we disagreed with each other, we were respectful. JNU also gave us the confidence to seek new ideas and to tread the untrodden path.
In JNU there was no system of marking attendance, but we never missed a class. This was because our teachers not only shared their knowledge but also triggered within us the passion to use it when we went out into the world. We believed we were the change makers of our country. My gratitude for giving us that belief goes to my alma mater and my teachers, Prof Moonis Ra
za in particular.
I will take the liberty to quote a poem written in July 2018 by a contemporary student, Lozaan Khumbah. His verse quite echoes my thoughts and sentiment:
“JNU is an idea---
It knows no constraint
Of space and time,
nor respects the rule of regimes,
Shed no tears for JNU.
For the idea that brooded in its
like a hen over her eggs,
will give birth to free women and brave men
who will speak forbidden tongues
and shape new generation of freedom fighters.”
Meanwhile, as our Centre evolved and developed in the 1980s it became a crucible for knowledge. A place where ideas could be tested, nourished, and allowed to grow. Our driving force was this immense passion to learn, try out new modalities and concepts.
We found working with children with developmental disabilities a very enriching and exciting experience. We realised that though there is no medical cure for their condition, much potential in the children can be developed through creative ideas in education, language, dance, music, art, craft, and other related activities.
Looking back, we did many things at Vidya Sagar which truly set us apart. Enumerating all of these would be impractical given the constraints of space, but here are few of our initiatives that stand out:
*We developed a holistic and flexible system of training parents and families from different backgrounds, challenged the outdated IQ scores and explored multiple intelligence.
*We reached out to students with autism and learning disability with a perspective of their learning styles.
*A curriculum for trans-disciplinary workers more relevant in the Indian context was put in place.
*Conductive education, a Hungarian methodology for children with cerebral palsy, was explored.
*We invested our efforts into inclusive education.
*A community-based rehabilitation practice based on partnerships with rural communities was developed where we also worked on psycho-social disability.
*We have become one of the leaders in augmentative and alternative communication in the country by exploring technology and the use of creative movement, language, drama, and communication.
*We have participated in the disability
rights movement, in the drafting of the disability law, set up a legal aid cell and joined hands with many partners, exchanging practice and ideas.
But what was it that made us special to those who came to us and to those we reached out to? We did a quick survey among a sample of old and new members of Vidya Sagar to ascertain what they thought was the most important value that was practiced at the institution. They were unanimous in pointing out that our disability-centric policy was what made us special. Indeed, in all our endeavours we have always placed the person with disability at the centre.
Once we launched, we quickly became a team which was cohesive. ‘’Flat like a matrix” is how someone described us. We had no fear of failure and never hesitated to ask questions. There was space for each one of us to voice our opinions and put forward suggestions. We knew, and still know, that we share a larger common vision, and within that framework if anyone has an idea,
we ensured we have the space.
From the outset, there was a sense of freedom. But we were mindful of not stepping on toes or violating space. We knew we were accountable to each other as stakeholders and to the community. Our survey revealed that all members—staff, students and their families--felt Vidya Sagar belonged to them. It was their Centre. This sense of ownership is visible even among Community Workers, who live and work in remote villages and may visit Vidya Sagar occasionally.
Our Centre was thus built on trust among ourselves, staff, students, parents, and volunteers. It continues to be a robust trust that motivates each one to live up and respect it. We have tried to root it all in being truthful and transparent, saying what we actually think and not being afraid to admit a mistake or failure. We believe each one here does their best.
A compliment I received which reflected this spirt came from a visitor who briefly stayed with us. “This is the only place I have visited, which has no under currents,” she said. Her point was that at Vidya Sagar p
eople generally said what they felt and did not feel the need to talk behind anyone’s back. Indeed, when things go wrong, it is not about, “I didn’t do it”, it's about “how can we fix it.” We take collective decisions and collective responsibility.
According to the survey, people felt they were heard and many of their suggestions were incorporated in the plans and acted upon. Also, what they appreciated was that there was no policing, and they were expected to work hard to build self-responsibility and autonomy.
Our foundation was and is rooted in our respect and acceptance of diversity. Diversity both in the socio-economic sense and in the abilities and support needs of each person. As we see it, each person is equally valuable, and we tried not to lose sight of the individual in the larger framework. A
t all times we try to practice both equality and equity.
Each person is happy and joyous when they can do what they are best at. We look for each one’s strengths and we believe that as an institution we can incubate dreams. We can find ways to make them a reality. We have learnt to value contribution and believe each one of us brings something to the table. We of course work on the barriers that exist, especially the barriers due to access, poverty, and attitudes. “Let your choices reflect your hopes not your fears”- the words of Nelson Mandela perhaps best define our approach and work.
At Vidya Sagar we have developed a sense of perseverance, dynamism, and innovation. We believe that solutions are waiting to be found. So, we look for them where none seem to exist. This helps us think out of the box and not fit square pegs in round holes. Since we cater to individual needs, we have learnt to be flexible. As people move from the margins towards the centre, there are always a new set of challenges. We are willing to work toward
s overcoming these with new and different answers. We live by the maxim enunciated so succinctly by Basavanna: “Things standing will fall, but the moving shall ever live.”
The slippery slope is our constant struggle to define ourselves both as an institution and a community which lives and learns t
ogether. Considering our size, rate of growth and need for funding we have had to formalise structures, adhere to the required norms and regulations. As we moved on from our tentative beginning, we had to frame some written and unwritten code of ethics and rules to govern ourselves. So, we have to a large extent managed to be a community of people who have ownership and friendship that binds us together. A community which rises together if anyone needs help.
You could say we are a movement. No one leaves Vidya Sagar, you may move on but for most there is still a string, a pull which makes you feel at times that you are still part of it. At other times we are an institution with a building and many programmes having all statutory requirements in place.
The building which gives us most of the institutional persona is looked upon as a community space. It is there for use after s
chool hours for other groups of people, both disabled and non-disabled. We encourage like-minded and positive activities like using the play equipment by children from neighbouring poorly resourced settings, theatre performances and workshops, music, dance, Tai-chi and yoga. The building is also made available in times of emergencies like a flo
od by communities in our neighbourhood.
Vidya Sagar has given the space for many leaders to emerge. Many new organisations have been built in Chennai and other places by people who discovered their gifts while working here. We believe that knowledge is power and sharing knowledge is progress. Each leader has grown with many different abilities. However, most of us practice a leadership style best described by an old saying: “In the end, the people said, we did it ourselves”. It is about being a collective with shared vision and responsibility.
So Vidya Sagar is an ever-evolving community. As it moves on from year to year, there will be much growth and change. Many life-long relationships have been fostered, some romances and much friendship. I do hope it still lives up to its original idea, and if it meanders, I pray it finds the same road again. The road of being a collective which practices integrity, fearlessness and most of all dignity and respect. Let ideas, thinking and creativity flow freely.
This book is a compendium of some of our stories. These are personal experiences recounted by those who have studied, worked, and belonged and still belong to the larger Vidya Sagar family. These narratives will hopefully help preserve the values and culture we have created. At the same time, they will provide you insights into how Vidya Sagar evolved and grew over the years. Remember, do not lock yourselves in, do not follow the mob and do not become competitive or ritualistic.
This book has been written with the thought that if we do not tell you our stories, then who will? So, sit back and enjoy these recollections and, if possible, learn from them. History is important and cannot be ignored. Light from the past can often brighten the future.
(Sudha Ramamoorthy and I have collaborated o
n this introductory chapter for a reason. She has played an important role in the evolution of some of the innovative practices we still follow at Vidya Sagar. She is also a friend, comrade, and collaborator.)
(Poonam Natarajan is the Founder of Vidya Sagar. Sudha Ramamoorthy is a Board Member of Vidya Sagar.)