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To walk into any one of the Latika Roy Foundation (LRF)’s centres in Dehradun is to enter a world of joy, commitment and dedication. To some, it may appear that this is also a world of pain. After all, the LRF caters to children and adults with varying disabilities.
But that is not what you take away. The sheer glee of the children and adults as they learn and play is matched by the careful attention and patience of their teachers and caregivers. The field that LRF covers is diverse as is the spectrum of disabilities. The walk-in assessment centre or Gubbara, which used to be part of the government-run Doon Hospital and the early intervention centre, where work is done with children from birth to the age of six are the entry points.
The child development centre is where careful and personally crafted physiotherapy and occupational therapy are offered. There are also two educational centres: a school for the seven to 14-year-olds and a vocational training centre for older children to give them skills to deal with the outside world. And my favourite, Latika Vihar, is all about play and creativity.
Parents are engaged and part of the activities. During the pandemic, LRF’s outreach staff worked on both video chats and home visits to help parents and families to provide the services which were not available at the centres. Amazing innovations were discovered together.
Even during lockdowns, LRF conducted workshops with the State Election Commission (and won an award as the best NGO in the state for its efforts), and the Army to increase awareness about disability rights.
And yet, strangely, the LRF has been attacked with absurd charges by sections of our vicious political climate, that no one can quite believe.
It began with the usual trolling which the BJP and its followers indulge in. Then it escalated when Jo Chopra tweeted about how India’s secular nature can never be destroyed by the Hindutva. This led to a police complaint and three cops visited her home. Luckily, they left satisfied and no charges were filed.
Next, and far more seriously, an absurd but potentially dangerous complaint was made to the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights claiming disabled children were being used to fulfil a personal agenda. An inquiry was conducted by the office of the Dehradun district magistrate, the outcome of which is still awaited.
Overall, Chopra’s experience demonstrates how dangerous it is in India to have a voice and to use it.
Apart from this, a right-wing propaganda site, known for spreading lies and misinformation, has consistently targeted Chopra. I was also subjected to their harassment because of my association with LRF.
Retired bureaucrat Vibha Puri, one of Dehradun’s most respected citizens, has been associated with the LRF for many years and says she is awed by the work which LRF does: “In all of north India, there is no one like the Latika Roy Foundation, there is a complete dearth of organisations who work with this neglected group of people. And here we have both Jo Chopra, and the organisation, LRF, working diligently for such a long time. We have to be grateful for their efforts. Parents, for instance, have been overwhelmed with the help they received during the pandemic. After all, to most of us, these are forgotten people.”
“Further, through her blogs about the rights of the disabled, Chopra has done remarkable work in raising awareness. I never realised, for instance, that something as simple as park gates can be such an obstacle to the disabled and those in wheelchairs. How relevant is her point that there are other perspectives to the world around us, to open the consciousness of people who do not realise the extent of other people’s reality.”
The LRF spreads awareness about and works with a wide spectrum of disabilities but hatred is something which is hard for anyone to effectively counter. In Chopra’s own words: “When you work with disabled people, you come to understand that we all have weaknesses and things which are hard for us. The people who have been bullying me on Twitter have a huge disability: they can’t accept people who are different from them. This problem makes them mean and vindictive. No happy, well-adjusted person would get such pleasure out of hurting others.”
Jyotsna Brar is the former principal of Welham Girls. She says, “I have been closely connected to LRF for 21 years. Have personally seen the work of the Foundation and the effect of the work, right from my first visit with Anu Aga to Gubbara, when it was at Doon Hospital. There I met parents who were so grateful that they were being supported where society itself offered little help. Later, a grown-up Sakshi with Down Syndrome came to work with us at Welham Girls, because she had been through the whole LRF system right up to the vocational training centre.”
“We must remember that the LRF was talking about the rights of special needs children long before anyone else had bothered about it. It is brilliant the manner in which Jo and the LRF spread awareness about these issues to students in Dehradun and across India. A group of students at Welham Girls were so inspired that they made a much-appreciated documentary on LRF. Now that I am retired, I am honoured and privileged to serve on the LRF board.”
It was the late Keshav Desiraju, one of Dehradun’s most loved IAS officers, who helped the Latika Roy Foundation set up Gubbara at a government hospital, and parents with little access to special help suddenly found a new world had opened to them.
It takes a special kind of awareness or perhaps a life experience to realise that the world is not just inhabited by able-bodied people, because the reality is that the focus on “normal” has made it an impossible world for everyone else. Jo and Ravi Chopra, a noted environmentalist, realised this when they adopted Moy Moy. It was through bringing up a child with cerebral palsy that LRF was born, named after the mother of Ravi’s school friend, herself a Montessori pioneer in India and married to a Doon School teacher. The death of Moy Moy has only given the LRF even more impetus and zest to keep going.
There can be no doubt that the Latika Roy Foundation is one of Dehradun and India’s prized assets. It offers hope and practical help to those people who “the abled” would happily lock up and forget about. When I first moved to Dehradun, it was one of the first places recommended to me. I say with pride that I am on the board of the LRF.
No one says it better than the dynamic and fun-loving Jo: “The Latika Roy Foundation is one of the happiest places I’ve ever been. The team is creative, funny, dynamic and joyful – and the kids! Oh, gosh. They are the best. I wish everyone could experience what we get to experience every single day. We’re the luckiest people in the world.”
And so is the world which LRF impacts.
Ranjona Banerji is a journalist. She is a board member of the Latika Roy Foundation.