Draft-1: Rizwana’s Quest for Conquering Limitations
Dear Mentors and Correspondents,
Below is my first draft. I will be delighted to have your suggestions!
I knew nothing about her, and yet, I was there at the footsteps of her organization. Sounds of children clapping and reciting grew louder and louder as I stepped closer. Once I entered, I was greeted with smiles and startles of women and children alike. I made myself comfortable on a low pink-hued chair and waited patiently for the face that would embody her humble yet assertive voice.
During that impatient wait, I looked around the room – unconventional in ways more than one. It screamed creativity and optimism. The walls were painted in fiery-red and mustard-yellow. Books, musical instruments, and toys co-existed in one room. Children were seated around low, colourful, round tables. When a woman asked the children to form three words with a letter of the Bangla alphabet, one swiftly answered, demonstrating an excellent ability to grasp the learning materials quickly. All these children had a common denominator: special needs.
While I was absorbed in my own thoughts, Rizwana, the founder of Alternative Learning Centre (alcforchildren.com), emerged. Dressed in fresh and soothing colours, she approached me with a smile that brightened up her eyes with contagious positivity. I felt completely at ease as she led me to a quieter classroom and settled for the interview.
With academic and professional backgrounds in Architecture, what led her to establish a school for children with special needs?
Rizwana was elated to have been blessed with a baby daughter. She soon discovered her baby was not responsive to signals. Amongst other things, the baby would not look when her name was called out. Four months into birth, the baby contracted fever and her condition deteriorated. Local doctors prescribed medical tests and medications, which further aggravated the situation. Another four months passed before it finally dawned upon Rizwana. Her daughter was autistic. Many of her limbs and organs were only partially developed. It took the baby greater time and effort to learn any process. She could not feed naturally like other babies due to lack of lip control. Consultation with various doctors at home and abroad pointed towards one reality: there could be little improvement, if any, in the baby’s development.
According to Autistic Children’s Welfare Foundation, one in every 150 girls is affected by autism. Experts estimate that about 3-6 children out of every 1,000 will develop autism. In Bangladesh, due to lack of formal research, it is assumed that about 300,000 children are affected. In general, social stigma is attached with autism. Working mothers are accused of inviting autism by not paying attention to children. Worse still, mothers are blamed for giving birth to “God-given curse.” Globally, since autism mostly affects men, autistic females remain largely ignored. According to the National Autistic Society, many girls are never referred for diagnosis even if their symptoms are severe and are deliberately excluded from research studies. Girls have needs and interests different from boys, which are usually not taken into account during diagnosis. In most cases in Bangladesh, it has been found that girls are more vulnerable than boys as they are sexually harassed. Clearly, autism and women’s rights to health and education are emerging and integral yet neglected facets of worldwide women’s empowerment movement.
Rizwana never viewed autism as a barrier towards attaining a fuller life. With a progressive mind, she approached reputed mainstream schools for her daughter’s admission. To her utter dismay, most of these schools, which claim international standards, did not provide the environment where autistic females could thrive. They did not offer customized education. They did not dedicate private space to females for feeding. It was evident to Rizwana that they were not prepared mentally to include such facilities. With a heavy heart, she shifted her target on special education schools. Dimly-lit, claustrophobic, and musty, these sub-par schools employed baby-sitters instead of teachers. “I want physiotherapy to be done by experts not by low-skilled women,” asserts Rizwana.
Rizwana noticed an unfulfilled need. With advice from her sister, Dr. Farzana, a pediatrician who treats autistic children, Rizwana established a non-profit school on the ground floors of her residence. She employed experienced doctors and teachers. She created inclusive, stimulating environment required for mental health. Open space is a key feature in the classrooms. Hygiene education is integrated in the school curriculum. She speaks of “toilet training,” a technique incorporating repeated words and activities, which enabled her daughter and other females to discontinue the overuse of diapers.
Although government reserves 1% quota for autistic people in all first and second class jobs, Rizwana tells me that only through specialized education and early intervention programs will autistic individuals be able to reap the benefits of such quotas. Rizwana aims to overcome the social barriers by integrating children with special needs into the mainstream society. Through her school, children with or without special needs interact.
Rizwana’s most pioneering step is the training and motivating of mothers, female educators, and caregivers to nurture autistic children. Currently, in Bangladesh, there is an unavailability of training institutes for this purpose. She distributed autism-friendly calendars and stationery items to 50 different schools in the country with the aim of promoting awareness on the issue. Despite low response, her spirit was undeterred. She filled the communication void through social media, particularly Facebook and e-mail. While resources were initially devoted to school development, she has decided to scale up her marketing efforts. She plans to recruit committed youth volunteers and link up with corporations and INGOs. She is adamant in accommodating 8 more children alongside the existing 14 in the school.
“Many say autistic girls do not need education. They only need discipline. I oppose. Education is a basic right. If her eyes are fine, that’s the medium and outlet through which we will reach her and she will express herself.”
With those poignant words, Rizwana concluded the interview to oversee training for mothers being conducted in the school.