Blog Entry by the Executive Director - Dr. Samuel N. Mathew
We had VVIP visitors yesterday on campus. Shri. Tawar Chand Gehlot is the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. He visited NISH along with Shri. Luv Varma, IAS Secretary and Shri. Awanish Kumar Awasthi, IAS Jt. Secretary of his ministry.
Mr. Gehlot is a seasoned politician of many years who has held numerous government positions. He has keen interest in social justice and upliftment and that makes his leadership a good fit for the ministry. This ministry has two major wings – Department of Social Justice and Empowerment and Department for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. Shri. Varma, IAS is the Secretary and Shri. Awasthi, IAS is Jt. Secretary in DEPwD.
The visit was initiated by the Ministry and we were pleased that he took the time to come and visit our students and staff. Being the only program in Trivandrum, this was the highlight of his visit to Kerala yesterday. He spent time with the children, went around the departments and spent time asking questions. He addressed the NISH family at a meeting in the new Auditorium. The government of Kerala was represented by Shri. A. Shajahan, IAS, Secretary for Department of Social Justice. The meeting itself was informal. In fact, we got the auditorium ready for his meeting. This was the first meeting in the new building.
Two children – one from the Early Intervention Program for the Deaf and the other from the Autism Intervention Program – performed. For them to do that in front of the audience was a challenge. For a few minutes we just held our breath as the child from AIP stood quietly. For a minute I thought we should call it off, if the child is not able to handle the big crowd staring at her. But suddenly she recouped and recited a Malayalam poem beautifully. The Minister was quick to react, and gave two bouquets of flowers to the children.
The other highlight was the portrait done by one of our students, Bobbin. He presented it to the Minister. Another beautiful painting done by Bala was also presented. As the meeting progressed, Arun Gopal, a faculty in the BFA department drew the caricature of the three visitors and presented them at the end of the meeting. A pleasant surprise for all of them. They were clearly overjoyed to look at their own caricature done in real time!
The Minister and his party went on for a meeting with the Chief Minister at his official residence – Cliff House. Officials from other organizations were also present. The CM had a very positive approach and the discussions were very open. He offered all sorts of help for the Central Schemes that provides help for the marginalized population. At the end of the talks he invited all of us for lunch in his house. As I understand that is quite unusual considering his busy schedule. He almost spent 2 hours with the Central team. A good rapport was seen between the two leaders – although they belong to totally opposing political parties. I think this is what is required – the ability to come together for the wellbeing of the people despite political differences.
The minister declared the amounts to be allocated for NISH – mostly based on the DPR. Impressive figures. Right now we will focus on the immediate needs. We hope to create a facility that will be a model campus with a culture that will spell excellence. A culture of inclusion and celebration of diversity. Culture transcends generations and that is what we hope for – an institutional culture that will be taken through the coming generations, even after we are all gone!
The highlight of the CEC conference was the ‘Yes I can’ award ceremony at 6 pm on 10th in the Exhibit Hall F. The picture shows the 21 awardees seated on the stage before the start of the ceremony. These kids are special needs children who have been chosen for the award in various categories –academics, arts, athletics, school & community activities, self advocacy, technology and transition. They have been selected from hundreds and hundreds of applications received from schools around the US and Canada. Their ability and spirit of ‘Yes I can’ was recognized at the event. Two Past Presidents of the CEC read the citation and presented the awards. You can read the citations at www.cec.sped.org/yesIcan
To say the least, this is one occasion which reinforced my faith in the spirit of special education. It is such an event that shows what can be done by investing in kids otherwise destined to a life of hopelessness and despair. I had a lump in my throat as each student’s citation was read and they either walked or steered their wheelchairs to the front of the stage by themselves. There was even one girl who came to the ceremony with her service dog.
Each of them had a story of persistence and survival that helped them to be the best in their community. They overcome challenges everyday to be their best. They make a difference in other people’s lives in the school where they study. There was applause all through. The parents, teachers and family members were seated in the front seats in the audience and they were cheered for their commitment and support in these children’s brave journey.
There was one kid I cannot forget. He obviously has Down syndrome and his citation said that his sense of humour and spirit of positiveness brightened everybody around him everyday. As he received the award and walked back, he looked at the audience, smiled, waved and pulled down and up his elbow with a clenched fist in a show of cheer. Everybody just roared!
Two events that I loved at CEC were the first key note address by Cohen and then this ceremony. Everything in between was bland compared to these – the meetings, the discussions, the information collected from various booths, the new connections made, the old acquaintances renewed. I think we need to celebrate the success stories more and more in NISH too!
Blog Entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew, Executive Director
With 5000 delegates, 800+ sessions, 200+ special education organizations exhibiting their wares, CEC is a huge conference. Then there are the interest groups for specific purposes – Autism, Communication Disorders and Deafness, Multiple Disabilities, Technology etc. etc. It is a daunting task to have a taste of everything. One has to be selective in attending sessions, going to caucus meetings etc. etc. Although majority participants are from schools and Universities in the US, there is considerable international participation also. I met international delegates from Portugal, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. I am sure there are more from other far off countries too.
San Diego Convention Center in downtown San Diego is a landmark place. It is such a big convention center that two other conventions/exhibitions were going on at the same as CEC. Walking from one end to the other itself is tiring. The exhibit halls, the meeting rooms all sprawled out in one multi-storied complex. To put it mildly, my legs are aching and my ankles are hurting.
I just surveyed the booths on 9th April to understand what is going on in the industry in terms of education, equipment, software, strategies, publications, assessments and a host of other things. What surprised me most was the number of Universities offering online courses at Masters level in Special Education, Disability Studies, Behaviour Analysis, Assistive Technology etc. Without coming to campuses even for once, students who are far away can obtain their degree. The fees were reasonable and ranged from $400 to $700 per credit hour for post-graduate level course. Most require 30 to 33 credits. When group of students enrol, several Universities offered huge discounts. All of them had accreditations.
Among other exhibitors, several companies offered “Behavioural intervention training”, and some of them offered online training too. It was surprising to me to see several school districts having booths and trying to recruit teachers for their districts. Good strategy! One person at a University booth openly invited me to apply for faculty position if I am interested, as they are looking for faculty in special education! That is unheard of! Then there were book publishers, advocacy organizations, and technology companies displaying their wares. Compared to other disability conferences such as C-SUN, ATIA and M-Enable, here at CEC there are a lot more focus on educational tools for the pre-school and school curriculum.
I was not hoping to see anybody whom I know. Well, what do I know? Dr. Teresa Taber, Assoc. Dean, College of Education, Purdue University was managing the “Division of Autism” counter. I had taken her classes during my days at Purdue and was involved in a project, I think. Then there was Dr. Miriam Bosch from UNT and Dr. Alex Da Fonte from Peebody College of Education, Vanderbilt University and several others. They were doctoral students at that time when I was at Purdue. They have moved on to academic settings. It was very much a surprise to meet these folks after so many years.
Blog Entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew, Executive Director
6 AM PST, April 9, 2015.
I reached San Diego yesterday by about 5 pm local time. It was a 3 hour drive from my son’s home in Lancaster, CA. I am here to attend the Council for Exceptional Children Annual Conference (CEC 2015). http://cecconvention.org/. I have not attended this conference earlier, but this time I decided to, since it coincided with a meeting I have with Dr. Maya Kalyanpur of University of San Diego. It all worked out better since my wife and I were visiting our younger son and his wife in Lancaster, CA north east of Los Angeles.
I was looking forward to this conference for one other reason. That was the keynote address by Mr. Brad Cohen of the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “Front of the Class”. It is still on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8veT5QspylE. I was really touched when I watched it a couple of years ago. This is one incredible story of a young boy who persisted to cut through his disability, The Tourette Syndrome – he calls it ‘my constant companion’. Listening to his story first hand was, to say the least, fabulous.
To imagine that he survived all of the troubles - starting from his dad to his classmates, to family and friends - is amazing. He was misunderstood by everybody. Except for his mother who was his biggest advocate and she supported him all through. Yesterday at the conference, he made all of us point the forefinger in the air and repeat after him. “I will make the difference in one child’s life”. He recounted couple of incidences which was not in the movie too. He was hilarious. He got a standing ovation at the beginning of his speech and at the end.
For me it was such a unique experience because of couple of things. Firstly, because he is a survivor. The simple proof that with persistence, you can survive and be successful. Today he is a sought after motivational speaker, writer, theme for a famous movie etc. etc. But he survived through umpteen hurdles before he got here. Secondly, here is a person who is a special education student who turned to become a professional, a teacher. He says this in his movie, “I want to be a teacher. That is the only thing I want to do”. I suggest that you watch this movie. It will be a time well spent. It can be used as a resource material for students in classrooms, to sensitize people about disability etc. etc.
San Diego is a beautiful seaside city. I am staying on the 18th floor. But I don’t think I will get time to go around see the city. May be another time.
Well, today I have a full day of conference and then tomorrow too. I will keep writing as I get time to sit down and write. Till then, bye bye!.
Blog Entry by Dr. Samuel N. Mathew, Executive Director
I have always believed in doing things collaboratively. That helps us to progress better. It is only so much we can do when we try to do things alone. We don’t know all of our weaknesses. When we collaborate with others, our weakness are compensated with strength from others and vice versa. And of course we are more accountable and we are more diligent!
So this March when we came over to the US to be with our children and grandchild I planned ahead and arranged some meetings to connect with those who are in the same field of work – Assistive Technology, Early Intervention, Special Education and other areas where we serve those with disabilities.
We reached Delaware on 26th evening and took couple of days to rest. My wife stayed back at our son’s place to spend time with our grandson while I packed my bags and set out for meetings. The first stop was Atlanta on 29th. I had heard about AMAC accessibility center in Georgia Institute of Technology. I had corresponded with Dr. Christopher Lee, Director of AMACS. They work under the University of Georgia System and has a mandate to provide accessibility tools, Assistive Technology tools, and software to monitor progress. Chris was welcoming and so were his colleagues Carol Philipps and others. They promised help as we establish our Assistive Technology Center. I spent the night with one of my old College buddiges, Raju Mathew. He and his wife live in Rosewell and they were gracious enough to pick me up the previous day at the airport and drop me off next day morning at Georgia Tech. Wonderful time together after a long time!
Next stop was at New York. The meeting was with Dr. Stephen Shore of the Special Education Program at Adelphi University. He specializes in students in the Autism Spectrum. We agreed to meet at JFK as he was flying out to Vermont and I was to go to Erie, PA. The meeting was good and he introduced me to Dr. Pavan John Antony, AP in Special Ed, Multiple Disabilities at Adelphi. Dr. Pavan hails from Kerala, but did his doctoral program in the US. There are a lot of opportunities we saw ahead as we progress into providing higher education for those with Autism and Multiple Disabilities. Great! I look forward to some major strides in that direction. In New York, my classmate PV Thomas came to pick me up and drop me off at JFK. Great times!
As I flew into Erie, PA on 31st, I saw the terrain was covered in snow. I didn’t expect that at all! But Erie is a place where snow is a regular feature. They are the third highest snowing city after Boston and Buffalo. The roads were clear and I checked into Wingate by Windham. A simple, clean, beautiful place. A good night’s rest was warranted. So I just had a long night’s sleep and woke early. I had breakfast and headed out to Edinboro University, about 12 miles from Erie. The day was full with discussions in different departments in EU. Dr. Charlotte Molrine arranged everything. Came off with a feeling of great possibilities.
As we are moving forward with our University plans we need good collaborators and partners and I am glad to have these friends whom we can turn to for help!
Signing off for now. I will later scribble about my stop at Temple University on 15th April.
There are a lot of things happening at NISH when I am away and I am in touch with them.
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