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Behind the scenes of an inclusive celebration

Special educators and accessibility consultants are using stories and objects to make Diwali a more tactile experience for persons with disabilities

Siddhant Shah (left) has been creating tactile aids to communicate the essence of the festival. Photo: courtesy Access For All
Siddhant Shah (left) has been creating tactile aids to communicate the essence of the festival. Photo: courtesy Access For All

It’s still a week to Diwali but neighbourhoods in Mumbai are already resounding with loud bursts of crackers. Nirali Shah has been receiving distress calls from parents of children with autism. “The loud noise acts as a trigger for them. They start getting restless, spitting, and even hitting at times. You might find them suddenly cutting their hair with scissors. Parents are unable to deal with this alone,” says Nirali , a special educator and shadow mentor who helps orient children with special needs to meet day-to-day life challenges.

Special educators and accessibility consultants around the country are busy working to make the festival an easier and more inclusive experience for everyone, be it children with autism or the visually and hearing impaired.

Earlier, Nirali would meet the families and the children for counselling. Since the pandemic has made that impossible, she is holding virtual sessions and meet-ups to help parents guide children through this time. For Diwali is a deeply sensorial festival, loaded with sounds, scents and light, and the aural and visual overload can be disorienting, even upsetting. “We start talking to them some two-three weeks in advance that these are the kind of sounds that you will hear, you might smell some smoke also. The idea is to prepare the kids,” says Nirali, whose work has taken her to schools around the country.

Her husband, Siddhant, is an access consultant and heritage architect who is trying to bridge the gap between cultural heritage and disability through his initiative, Access For All. For some time now, he has been trying to make festivals more tactile for the visually impaired. In the past, while working at the City Palace Museum, Jaipur, he helped create the country’s first museum Braille book with tactile images and large font. Siddhant also created tactile aids for each festival.

But it was only last year that he realised just how important a role visuals play in celebrating a festival. He was approached by the MP Birla Cement group in Kolkata to create a tactile experience of Durga Puja. When he conducted a workshop with nine visually impaired children from the Ramakrishna Mission Blind Boys Academy, they told him they had visited pujo pandals and knew of the trishul, but were unaware of its form.

They associated the puja with the smell of the shiuli (night jasmine) flowers offered to the goddess and with the smell of dhunuchi (incense) . “But one kid asked me, hum log ek pandal se doosre jaate hain, but dono mein alag kya hai? Awaaz and smell toh same hai (what’s the difference between the pandals? They sound and smell the same),” says Siddhant. “Most of us use visual cues to differentiate one pandal experience from another, which they didn’t have access to.”

So, he created tactile aids to bring out cues that would help the children understand the essence of the celebration. These included reproductions of the face of the deity in the pandal, complete with thick threadwork, ornamentation, big beads for eyes and thick outlines of the features.

He has been working with schools for the blind through the pandemic to create similar cues for Diwali. “Create stories, game-ify it. Music plays an important role when you are working with children with disability,” he says.

While counselling parents of children with autism, Nirali too uses a variety of aids, ranging from concrete and semi-concrete objects to abstract concepts. “Kids observe toran and kandeel being put up during Diwali. They wonder, why is this done every year? Why is Navratri celebrated in Bengal and Gujarat differently? So, we don’t have to tell them what Navratri is or what Diwali is, but what is the essence of these festivals, the diversity underlying these,” she explains.

While making rangoli, use more tactile materials such as petals and beads instead of powder. Photo: courtesy Access For All
While making rangoli, use more tactile materials such as petals and beads instead of powder. Photo: courtesy Access For All

For this, she uses concrete objects such as lanterns, rangoli patterns pasted on to a board, and diyas—things that are both tangible and visible during the festival. Last year, when she showed a child a rangoli aid, the child immediately put it in her mouth. “I showed her a fountain cracker, she thought it was a jalebi and put it in her mouth. So, one needs to take time to explain what each object is,” says Nirali. Semi-concrete aids include garlands, images of gods and goddesses and different kinds of sweets, all of which help highlight the diversity of celebrations since their use varies across regions and cultures. After a week or two of working with concrete and semi-concrete objects, she moves on to abstract aids like storytelling and rhymes.

These focus on the process or sequence of events during Diwali: for instance, the puja is done in the evening, followed by sweets and special dishes. The abstract aids help children understand that some people might burst crackers —and ways to deal with it. Often, the workshops involve some amount of movement and activity.

“We have to understand that there are different levels on the autism spectrum, and not all children will be comfortable with moving around a lot. So, our sessions are based on the motor skills and comfort levels,” says Nirali. “Very often, children take what teachers explain more seriously, rather than when it comes from the parents.”

This is also why special educators at schools around the country have tried to stay connected to children through the pandemic. “There has been a drastic change in routine for them.Every year, we would celebrate Diwali in a big way at school, but this year things are different. They are missing that routine,” says Akanksha Ranade, principal and trustee, Anandi Special School, Mumbai, who works with children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism and muscular dystrophy.

Confinement at home has led to considerable pent-up energy and hyperactivity among them. “We have made sure the virtual counselling sessions happen regularly. Those who don’t have smartphones, we are speaking over a regular call,” she says.

Families form the other layer of support. “People on the neurodivergent spectrum have different needs on the sensory scale. Everyone in the family should realise that and communicate it to people around them, in case of issues with firecrackers, and more,” says Shreya Jain, founder of Reservoir, a platform that helps families which have members with special needs. It ensures legal rights for the differently-abled, helps create individualised education plans and works on inclusive workspaces.

Her suggestions come from deeply personal experiences. Her brother, who has autism, becomes hyperactive when he has sugar. “As a family, we have switched to healthier alternatives. And we have requested people to limit the number of sweets they offer him during the festivals,” says Jain.

Initially, they used to worry about coming across as fussy while communicating his needs. They even ended up not taking him to some of the pujas. “But that is not an inclusive situation. Now, we just try and make people understand beforehand, and it helps,” she adds. At Reservoir, she is building a digital platform to reach a wider neurodivergent community. “Next up is a virtual Diwali party for our neurodivergent members,” she says.

The process of creating initiatives has been revelatory for counsellors and consultants too. Siddhant, for one, has realised that most festivals are already inclusive in spirit. “Take a rangoli, for instance. Someone does an outline, others fill in the smaller pieces, then another group does the bigger designs. The whole community gets involved,” he explains. “We need to make sure that the ritual or the tradition is tweaked in a manner that everyone gets to participate. Instead of powder, use tactile material like petals. Don’t leave anyone behind.”

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