After an accident at his workplace, Bhoomi, a 26-year-old from rural Tamil Nadu, India, lost interest in work and isolated himself from everyone. His neighbors were at a loss to understand the change in his behavior. He was labeled a “lunatic,” which worried his parents and propelled them to seek help.
During my recent mission visit to Sivagangai District in Tamil Nadu, India, I met with Mr. Kannan, a social entrepreneur. I was visiting communities to understand the latest efforts under the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project (TNEPRP) to support the differently abled with economic activities following their identification and mobilization. For six months now, Mr. Kannan is running a Community Skills School (CSS), an innovative approach to skills enhancement, in the Kalaikulam Village. At the school, which provides self-identified and motivated trainees with skills to repair home appliances, Mr. Kannan has already trained 70 differently abled men and three women. Among the trainees is his wife, who is differently abled herself, but is of huge support to Mr. Kannan in running the CSS and in working with women. He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women.
He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women. Run on a guild program model, the CSS ensures that upon completion of a one-month program on skills enhancement, the trainees can become self-employed or work in small enterprises repairing home appliances in their own and neighboring villages. The rapid urbanization of rural Tamil Nadu offers plenty of such opportunities.
Mr. Kannan designed the key aspect of the curriculum—which goes beyond technical training—based on his own life experiences. During our conversation, I found out that Mr. Kannan is differently abled himself—he was afflicted with polio at the age of three and has lost the use of both his lower limbs. As a result, Mr. Kannan needed a wheelchair to get around. Nevertheless, he was not deterred and continued his education to receive a diploma in mechanical engineering from a local Polytechnic. He ended up at Samsung’s service center in Chennai, the state capital, where he spent four years acquiring skills in home appliance repair.
Erwadi is known for its 550-year-old Badusha Nayagam Dargah—“Erwadi Dargah,” one of the biggest shrines in India. Every day, numerous devotees of different faiths visit the shrine from surrounding villages, states, and countries. Among these visitors is a large number of people who suffer from mental illness and have come to pray for a cure. Some of them see the Dargah as their first and only hope—guided by the magico-religious belief that illness is caused by the possession of evil spirits or the performance of wicked magic—while others have turned to the shrine as a last resort after receiving ineffective treatment.
When I visited Erwadi Dargah in 2013 and met with a team working on a local program called District Mental Health Project (DMHP), an important partner of the World Bank-supported Tamil Nadu Mental Health Project, they expressed an urgent need to help the devotees affected by mental illness. Their subsequent discussions with representatives of the shrine revealed a lack of information on potential treatment options and strong resistance to medical interventions among the devotees. At that time, the team knew of a similar circumstance in another part of India—the state of Gujarat—so they invited the representatives of Erwadi’s religious community to learn from peers in Gujarat about complementing religious rituals with medical treatment.
And thus started a unique experiment called “Dawa-Dua,” or prayer-treatment.
That’s why, in 2012, we launched a comprehensive social and clinical care program with the government of Tamil Nadu to inform and educate local communities on mental health issues, as well as to encourage families and people affected by mental illness to seek treatment. Working with leading local health practitioners, we based the campaign on a core message that was simple, powerful, and resonated with the community:
"Just like the Other Kids" could reach 300,000 first and second graders this year.
We like to think that our value added is our strong intellect and analytical skills combined with the ability to provide additional resources to tackle development issues. But for South Asia’s efforts in disability, it has sometimes been the smallest amounts of money and the least ‘Bank-like’ activities that have been creating the greatest awareness on the subject. I wanted to highlight some of the very exciting initiatives that we have been working on marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities today. Three such activities have been the development of a children’s book on inclusion in Pakistan, coverage by an Indian newspaper of a one-page analysis of Bollywood’s depiction of disability in films in the report Disability in India: from Commitment to Actions, and a Small Grants Award Ceremony in Sri Lanka.
“Just like the Other Kids” is a book by young people between the ages of 12 to 18 with and without disabilities financed for $22,000 by the South Asia Youth Innovation Fund and the Pakistan Small Grants Program. Its intent is to introduce first and second graders to characters with disabilities in a friendly, inclusive way. Three out of five of the characters have a disability, but all the characters have strong abilities (and some weaknesses).