My child was diagnosed with specific learning disability when she was 7. Our journey has been both painful and revelatory. Schools told me that they could not help her, but I always believed that they had not evolved enough to work with someone like her, a child with a unique brain who learned very differently.
When I read K. Srilata’s This Kind of Child, I finally found a book that mirrored my own struggles as a parent. The book is a new collection of essays, short stories, and first-hand accounts by people with disabilities or those who have been impacted by disability in some way. Srilata is a poet, writer, and the director of the Centre for Creative Writing and Translation at Sai University in Chennai. Like me, she is the parent of a child with learning difficulties. The book talks about her struggles in finding a school that would accept her daughter, with one school telling her that it cannot possibly admit “this kind of child.” I have such soul-crushing stories to share about schools too. The author is right when she says that “schools and colleges in India disable the young.” Like the author, I cannot understand why parents are so keen to swear by an education system that wants to standardise all our children when clearly the human race needs diverse strengths to move forward.
The author writes about her daughter’s struggles but here’s something you don’t see in many books: The author’s daughter, too, the one she talks about parenting, also has an essay in the book. She talks about how she struggled, and ultimately found her own place in the world. In the essay, Srilata’s daughter writes, “What people do not realise about dyslexia or other learning difficulties is that they affect a person as much or even more than physical disabilities. The insults that were hurled at me for being ‘bad’ at things that others my age had mastered easily were like swords through my heart.” It was heartwarming to read that she now studies psychology, and aspires to combine her specialisation and her love for music, to become a music therapist.
In This Kind of Child, Srilata features extraordinary stories and essays by people with disabilities who want to develop a vocabulary of their own. As a parent, this felt relatable because part of me is always trying to impose a ‘normal’ form and structure on my daughter’s vocabulary but another part of me cherishes the different way she sees the world and uses language.
To illustrate this, the author uses the example of The Spoon Theory, which is a term coined by Christine Miserandino, who wanted to tell her friend how it felt to have lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes immense fatigue and debilitating pain. Miserandino handed her friend twelve spoons, each representing a unit of energy, and asked her friend to take one spoon away for each activity of the day. At the end of the day, there was no energy to do anything.
One of the essays in This Kind of Child, is Ananya Dasgupta’s ‘Getting the Light Just Right’ is an essay about a fledgling young photographer who is taught that “the art of portrait photography is in getting the light in the eyes”, but how this rule of thumb becomes completely irrelevant when an author with blindness walks into her studio. She needs to find another way. This reminded me of an incident in my daughter’s school when all the children were asked to replicate a famous painting by Monet but my daughter was the only one who gave it her own spin and was adamant about reimagining it.
The new emerging narrative around disabilities, by and of people with disabilities, is relevant to us all because it challenges outdated ideas and shows us a new perspective, moving towards the future and inventing a different language altogether.
One of my favorite stories in this book is ‘Vision’ by Ruth Vanita, a translation of her story, ‘Nazar’. The story’s narrator makes a startling discovery in a home for girls with blindness — she realises that there are worlds she did not know existed and new worlds being created. When I finished This Kind of Child, I was overcome by similar emotions.
I feel lucky that I have a front-row seat in my daughter’s journey into these unchartered and exciting new territories that exist in the future.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist in Mumbai