Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Stumbling, but smiling

The inmates of the Bethsaida home for the physically disabled acquire degrees and other skills and look forward to be gainfully employed

By Shevlin Sebastian

There is a look of sadness on Annie Gracy’s face as she remembers her friend Sheeba Kurian. “She had blood cancer, but it was diagnosed very late,” she says. Sheeba died in 2004 when she was only 21.

“I could not imagine she could die so quickly,” says Annie. “She was a cheerful and friendly person. This was the first death in our group.”

The group includes T.R. Ramitha, 20, Shyla Joseph, 37, Johnsy John, 19, and Mary Azhaku Rani, 17, all of whom are staying at Bethsaida, a home for physically disabled girls at Thevara, run by the Sisters of the Destitute.

Says Mother Superior Sr. Roslin, “There are 23 inmates and they range in age from five to 35 years.” All of them come from financially strapped families: the fathers are labourers, barbers, fishermen, workers in private firms, and a few are unemployed alcoholics.

“Some families are so poverty-stricken that we have to pay for the bus fares so that the parents can come to meet their children,” says Sr. Roslin.

Annie Gracy, 33, has been living at Bethsaida for the past 17 years. “I got polio when I was two years old,” she says. “I can only move around with the help of calipers.”

She has completed her B.A. and is now looking for a job. She has done part-time computer work and has learnt an unusual skill: making umbrellas. “Till some time ago, I regularly got orders from a particular shop,” she says. She makes the umbrellas in April and May.

As for Ramitha, she had been bed-ridden for years. Then an operation was done and she was able to straighten her legs. There was good news also for Angela also, who had a big lump on her back. “She felt very bad about it,” says Sr. Roslin.

So Bethsaida launched a successful collection drive, and Angela was operated on at Amrita Hospital. “Now the hump has been removed, and a steel rod has been put in her back,” says Sr. Roslin. “She is normal now.”

Krishnammal, 14, who is of Tamil origin, also had a large hump on her back. And for years she suffered from the taunts of classmates and pedestrians when she walked on the streets.

“Now, thanks to an operation by Dr. A. A. John, the senior orthopaedic surgeon at Cochin Hospital, she has been cured,” says Sr. Roslin.

Dr. John, who does these operations free of cost, says he tries to restore the movements of limbs affected by polio, cerebral palsy and congenital birth defects. “Sometimes, one leg is shorter than the other and we try to lengthen it,” he says.

Unfortunately, Dr. John cannot do anything for Johnsy’s birth defect: In place of her left hand, her elbow has a rounded edge.

This B.Com final year student at Sacred Heart, Thevara, says, “When I was a child, classmates would tease me a lot and I would get upset. But in college the students and teachers are kind and sympathetic.”

Like the others, Johnsy has got used to staying at Bethsaida. “In my own house, I feel lonely,” she says. “At Bethsaida, there are others like me and there is a lot of love and understanding between us.”

The home has relaxed rules. Parents can take their children home on weekends for family functions, but have to bring them back before classes start on Monday. During the summer vacation, and at Christmas and Onam, the girls go back home for several weeks. “We want to ensure they maintain contact with their families,” says Sr Roslin.

As the nun talks in the parlor, in walks Sangeeta Antony, 24, with a bright smile on her face. She is on her way to the nearby BSNL office where she has a job in the computer section.

“I did my BA in Economics,” she says. Sangeeta was afflicted by polio when she was a child, but has now been fitted with an artificial leg. Most of the younger girls are studying at the St. Thomas high school in Perumanur.

Many of the inmates epitomise the saying by internationally acclaimed poet and disabled person Robert M. Hensel: “We, the ones who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen, not as a disability, but as a person who is, and will continue to bloom. To be seen, not as a handicap, but as an intact human being.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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