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“I enjoy playing football with my best friend and taking part in competitions”

When a child starts behaving in a socially ‘unacceptable’ manner, people immediately blame the parents, especially the mother! They cannot tell the difference between a badly brought up child and one who has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
Sharmistha Laskar (34), the mother of Utkarsh Laskar (8), bore the brunt of social disapproval for many years but when he was mistreated in school and denied an education, she could no longer take it. She decided to fight against the injustice towards her son, and in the process she herself received an education in disability rights.
Utkarsh is the only child of Sharmistha and her husband Sudeep Kumar Laskar, a bank clerk in the Andamans. Before marriage Sharmistha was a member of Rhythm Theatre for Performing Arts in Kolkata, taking part in dance-dramas and specialising in classical, Bengali folk and Bollywood dances. The couple was concerned when Utkarsh didn’t utter a single syllable even at 18 months. Family elders said he was just a “late talker” but Sharmistha noticed striking behaviour patterns. “When frustrated he would shout or throw things, pull hair, scratch and pinch,” she recalls. “He was restless and impatient. People would complain to me about his parvarish (upbringing) and lack of sanskaar (culture /manners).”
Utkarsh was three-and-a-half when his parents mentioned his speech problem to a family friend and physiotherapist. She helped them contact ENT specialists and speech therapists. To get the best professional help, Sharmistha looked beyond the Andamans to the mainland, Kolkata, which has India’s oldest paediatric institute. The Institute of Child Health is a trust-run hospital set up by the doyen of India paediatrics, Dr K.C. Chaudhuri. Here, Utkarsh was diagnosed with ADHD as well as speech delay. Sharmistha stayed with her mother for six to eight months (“my mom has been my strength”) and took Utkarsh for speech therapy at the institute. He spoke his first word at four years and one month. Sessions continued till he was six and a half, enabling him to speak a few words separately but not string them together in a sentence.
Sharmistha and Sudeep were impatient at their son’s slow progress. Then they received “the best advice” from their doctor, which eased their tension: “Don’t compare him to other children. This will only add to your frustration, which will hamper his treatment.” But a nightmarish experience was to follow when they admitted him in a private kindergarten.
“There was no special educator and he was treated like an untouchable, like a terrorist!” a distressed Sharmistha told us. She would be the lone parent sitting on a staircase outside the classroom, ready to handle frequent complaints from teachers. They regarded him as a disobedient kid, punishing him every time he shouted or disrupted the class. Sharmistha’s heart would break every time he was sent out of class to play by himself in the hot sun. Once, during a bath, he yelled in pain when she soaped his back. She noticed deep scratches. Utkarsh had a two-word explanation: “ma’am” and “pencil”. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
The school gradually reduced the number of days he could attend, from alternate days to once a month and finally to dismissing him, claiming they had a written complaint from one of his classmates. He missed school for a year. When he saw his classmates walking past the house he would take out his uniform from the cupboard and insist that his mother take him to school. The ensuing tussle would end in tears for both mother and son.
Sharmistha was at the end of her tether. She decided to seek legal help and went to the Andaman Law College. She is extremely grateful to the department head and professors who helped her. They told her the school could lose its licence for discriminating against the disabled, and documented its treatment of Utkarsh in the form of a legal note. They informed her about disability rights and the Unique Disability ID. “After hearing all this I could feel the shakti (power) in me,” she says. They advised her to go to the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Education Department with their letter.
Meeting M. Bhavani in the Education Department changed their lives. (Readers might remember the EGS story on the gold medal-winning para-athlete who is now Block Resource Person for Children with Special Needs.) Bhavani recommended that Utkarsh join the Government Primary School in Garacharma, Port Blair. He joined Grade 1 and has shown immense improvement since!
Utkarsh’s class teacher Sheetal-ma’am allows him to learn at his own pace. He has access to a special educator and mingles with his classmates. After continuing his speech therapy he can now sing the national anthem and say the names of all his friends, his best friend being Krishnendu Sardar with whom he plays football.  “Now I don’t have to stay back in school since he is well adjusted,” says his mother.
Since Bhavani conducts physical training six days a week Sharmistha takes Utkarsh to the Netaji Stadium where he does yoga and thoroughly enjoys sports such as racing, long jump and high jump. Sharmistha keeps looking for opportunities for him to participate in drawing, dance and sports competitions for children with disabilities – for example the 50m race at the Khalsa Public School annual day where he came second, a dance programme at the Composite Regional Centre in Brookshabad and a drawing contest in Pune. 
At home he likes watching cartoons, eating chicken biryani and going on scooter rides with his dad. “I have a lot of mental peace now,” says Sharmistha who hopes other parents demand accessible education and seek the right interventions that will bring out the abilities of their children with disabilities.


Vicky Roy