Listening to Lajwanti Devi talk, you can’t help but be inspired by her message of hope.
For the past 45 years, she been a resident of the Cheshire home in Delhi. While on the surface it appears as if she is like any other 60-year-old woman in a wheelchair, the reality is different – her surroundings in the facility show her to be one of a group of 70 physically and mentally disabled people who call Cheshire home their home.
Her family live in Uttar Pradesh in northern India.
“I understand why they cannot look after me,” Devi tells Weekend Review. “It is a trouble to look after a disabled person and it impacts the entire family.” And while she does see her family during festivals and on special occasions, this is her home.
Gajendra hails from Karnal in Haryana and has been living in this home for more than 40 years, and it has given him real meaning. And like all living here, the home has been a life-changing event.
Meenakshi is around 40 years of age and doesn’t have parents although her family is based in Delhi. She has been staying in Cheshire Home for more than 20 years.
“Ghar jana hai (I want to go home),” says Meenakshi, as tears stream down her face. Sadly, that’s not possible given her disabilities and circumstance. But the home is there for those who need it the most.
According to the World Health Organisation’s report on disability, more than 1 billion people are suffering from some form of disability, and around 200 million of those fall in the severe category, meaning they require assistance to function on a day-to-day basis – and this figure is on the rise.
According to the 2011 census, India has about 26.8 million disabled people, which is about 2.2 per cent of its overall population, and these include people with disabilities ranging from physical handicap to mental illness, cerebral palsy to autism.
“Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment, and never get the chance to shine,” noted Stephen Hawkins, the late Cambridge professor of astrophysics who spent five decades in a wheelchair suffering from Motor Neuron Disease.
With that in mind, the onus is on government, welfare organisations and society at large to mainstream services for the disabled. Very often too, the disabled are stigmatised for trying to overcome their challenges so they can contribute fully both economically and socially.
India too lacks a formal infrastructure to look after the disabled or differently-abled individuals. And more often than not, families try to cope with the economic challenges of looking after them. There’s also the fact that the disabled have limited or fewer options to earn a living.
But the network of Cheshire homes strives to change perspectives, providing positive and caring environments for its residents.
The homes were founded in the UK by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, a Second World War Royal Air force pilot who was decorated for valour with the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.
The horrors of the war and the toll it took on ordinary people left him traumatised but determined to make a difference. He set up the first Cheshire home in the United Kingdom in 1948 to care for the disabled.
In India, Major General Virendra Singh, who had enjoyed a personal friendship with Cheshire, was inspired to set up the Cheshire home in Delhi in 1957. He became the pillar of the organisation across the subcontinent. And since then, the home has been relentlessly caring for the physically disabled and mentally ill, and is solely dependent on donations for its day-to-day running.
The colonial architecture of the Delhi home, with its ample open spaces, and immaculately maintained, is a reminder of a bygone era.
The 70 residents are cared for in separate units for males, females and children, and three-quarters of the residents suffer from mental illnesses, the rest from physical challenges. Most residents share a room with another.
The home also includes a gym area for physiotherapy sessions and Prerna Sharma, a clinical psychologist, interacts with patients regularly, giving them a variety of tasks to undertake based on their abilities. Music therapy is also used to enliven the atmosphere and infuse positivity.
“It is important to keep them occupied, otherwise it leads to a lot of frustration,” Vinod Verma, a retired government employee and the Administrator of Cheshire Homes here tells Weekend Review. “If they do something constructive, they feel a huge sense of accomplishment.
“All they want is love and acknowledgment,” he says.
Verma is responsible for running the institute on behalf of the trust, and is assisted by a team of around 25 staff and volunteers. Trained physiotherapists conduct physical and other exercise sessions for all the residents, and this helps in enhancing their motor movements. Regular recreational activities such as movie shows, singing and music along with television are also provided for visual and aural stimulation.
“Recently, the entire group travelled to Haridwar (a holy city in the state of Uttarakahnd),” explains Verma. “It was extremely tough, but we managed with the help of volunteers. It was a trip of a lifetime for many who hadn’t travelled outside the home for many years.”
For most of the residents, this is the only home they know. One such resident is Inder Prakash, who was Delhi’s table tennis champion between 1956 and 1962. His intense studies and constant pursuit of excellence impacted negatively on his mental health. Now aged 71, he has lived here for years.
The inherent philosophy behind the Cheshire Home is that every individual, irrespective of his or her level of disability, is unique and valuable and has the right to dignity and freedom to achieve their aspirations. In keeping with this, the home organises various vocational training courses, and the residents are encouraged to pursue their calling. These include vocations like tailoring, soap making, candle making, envelope making and diyas (small earthern lamps) for the India festival of lights, Diwali. Most patients are so competent in their work that they make pyjamas for FabIndia, a popular retail platform that sells products based on traditional techniques and processes. These efforts not only keep them occupied but also help them in becoming economically self-sufficient.
The Delhi home also runs a free day-boarding school for disabled children from slum areas near Jamia in the south-east part of the city. At present, there are 19 students between the ages of five and 12, each with varying degrees of disability. The day-boarding school runs from 10am to 4pm, and it also arranges for the children to be picked up each morning and dropped off after school. While most disabled children from poor backgrounds don’t get an opportunity to study, the Cheshire home is crucial in proving a rare opportunity for learning and care in a professional environment.
“They are provided with books, stationery, uniforms, and food,” Verma tells Weekend Review. “The bright students are later admitted to mainstream schools. This year, four students joined Balwant School for the Hearing Impaired.”
The biggest challenge faced by the home is the lack of funding.
“We are almost always hard-pressed for funds,” Verma says. “We hope to continue to help the disabled in leading a life with dignity.”
Gagandeep Kaur is a writer based in New Delhi.