A Centre for disability but more of a centre of hope

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Srinagar, March 10 (ANI): 'She Hope Disability Centre' in Srinagar has been offering physiotherapy and corrective surgery, as well as hearing aids and low-cost prosthetic legs. Since 2001 the latter has been pioneered by Mobility Equipment Needs of the Displaced, MEND, a New Zealand-based charity.

Housed in a single storey building, four-room brick building, the centre has treated more than 700 people in the last two years alone, claims Sami Wani, the young manager of the centre.

"We give out all these aids free of cost and also take on the post-operative care of our patients. Their rehabilitation is also our responsibility," says Wani.

One of the beneficiaries has been a 14-year-old Rihana who is today in the post-operative care ward of the Centre. Her mother Sakeena narrates that Rihana's left leg was shorter than her right, which made her limp. Today, Rihana is a happy girl and excited at the idea of returning to school sans any embarrassment caused by schoolmates.

Since childhood, Wani nurtured a deep desire to do something for the disabled. After training himself to be a physiotherapist at a college in Mangalore, Wani returned home to Kashmir in 2001.

A chance email led him to contact Rob Buchanan, Director of MEND. With the help of MEND he opened a single-room community-based rehabilitation program in his hometown of Vyail, around 20 kilometres from Srinagar.

Every week he visits a new village with his staff and begins creating awareness of the causes, prevention and treatment of disabilities. This is followed by identification, assessment and eferral of disabled people to his Centre. Surgery cases are identified and treated during the winter by the local government hospital

He tells that his experience has proved personal eye opener. "I was really pained to see the lack of awareness, especially among people in remote areas. Poverty and the high cost of treatment made things even more difficult for them," says Wani.

The social stigma attached to disability, particularly among women and especially in rural areas, adds to the complexity of the problem. Wani recalls an incident where villagers told him about a family with a deaf girl. "She was so beautiful. We approached her parents to help her, but they refused to admit that she had a hearing problem. But after a few days, her mother came to our Centre for help."

Realizing the need to upgrade his Centre's infrastructure and facilities, with the help of his father who provided land, Wani constructed a four-room building. He also hired two physiotherapists, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and a driver.

Donations came from the police and Indian Army, as well as locals. Wani's mentor, Rob visits every year for a few months with his team of doctors and helps Wani with the surgeries and aids.

During summer, the Centre is converted into a special school for the disabled where children are given individual attention and everyone is taught as per his or her specific requirements. Deaf students are given speech therapy and the blind are taught Braille, after which many children are able to join the normal schooling process. She Hope also admits mentally challenged students.

Living up to their motto of "Promoting Self-Help, not Sympathy" the 'She Hope Disability Centre' also has a vocational programme that offers training in practical arts and crafts like basket weaving, cutting and tailoring, with the aim of helping their clients become self-reliant. "In some cases, it is really difficult for the patients to go back to school, especially when they have crossed a certain age, so we try to help them by teaching some skills," says Wani.

She Hope, as the centre, is also called, offers these individuals soft loans for setting up their own small businesses. Wani tells about a girl who opened a tailoring training Centre of her own in her village. He says his next goal is to set up a hostel facility for patients.

"There are far off areas where there are no roads and no reliable means of transport, so it is really difficult for patients to come for daily physiotherapy," he says.

In 2007, supported by the Finnish Abilities Foundation, She Hope set up services in Kupwara District of Jammu and Kashmir, which was hit by a massive earthquake in October 2005. "The earthquake caused much devastation and the number of people left disabled was really alarming. With limited resources we were able to treat only a small number, but we got almost 300 cases," says Wani.

The Centre has submitted a few proposals for funds to the state department of Social Welfare, which has, in turn, forwarded them to the Central Government.

Though the government has cleared She Hope for foreign grants, thus offering the promise of much-needed growth, Wani laments the files are gathering dust there. "It is a long, long wait and I am still waiting."

Wani's centre may not have won the 20,000 dollars prize and may be surviving from one grant to the next, but that fact does not deter Wani. He continues to dream that no disabled person will suffer from want of treatment and from getting the chance to live a life of dignity and fulfilment.

The number of disabled persons in Kashmir has sharply increased over the last two decades of turbulence. Hospitals in Kashmir, generally overburdened, cater to basic heath services.

According to an article published by Combat Law in 2008, "There are 302,670 persons with disabilities, constituting about three percent of the total population of the State, as per the Census of 2001. Unofficial estimates overtake that figure, as it only takes into account persons that are registered as differently-abled."

No formal survey has been carried out to accurately determine the exact number and types of disabled persons in Kashmir. Based on its own calculations and numbers served, She Hope, according to Charkha Feature service, estimates that 20,000 people urgently await basic assessment. By Nusrat Ara (ANI)

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