In October 2013, along with my colleagues Jayashree and Johnson, I attended the Asian Federation on Intellectual Disabilities (AFID) conference held in Delhi, Northern India. This was the second time that I had attended an AFID conference, having previously presented a paper at this event when it was held in Singapore. Whilst many conferences follow a set pattern of researchers presenting papers to other researchers, the AFID conference is quite unique in that it provides a platform for people with learning disabilities and other special educational needs, who are encouraged and supported to present their own ideas and issues to the gathered audience. This blend of academic papers and personal life experience stories makes for a stimulating few days in which researchers, parents, administrators and people with learning disabilities share a platform, participate together in social activities and learn from each other.
These conferences are attended by delegates from many Asian countries. Individuals from Japan share their ideas with others from Sri Lanka and Korea, whilst those from India discuss current developments with others from Malaysia and Afghanistan. Issues of inclusion are debated and there is an atmosphere of shared respect and willingness to learn. The conference takes place every two years and unfortunately I am not able to attend this year’s gathering in Sri Lanka.
It was whilst looking through the published proceedings from the Delhi conference in an effort to find some information for one of my Indian students, that I came across a report given at this meeting by Sachidanand Shrivastava from the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities (NAID) in Nepal, an organisation founded in 1981 to support people with learning disabilities and their families. Mr Shrivastava spoke with great passion and pride about the achievements of this organisation across a country which faces many geographical, demographic and social challenges. He described the commitment of individuals who were attempting to develop facilities and provide resources and training in 23 districts of the country. Many of these are remote and require innovative approaches to the provision of support and great dedication on the part of those professionals and volunteers prepared to work there. There are certainly many children in Nepal who are being afforded an opportunity to receive an education as a result of the interventions of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities.
I remember at the time of hearing Sachidanand Shrivastava being impressed by the enthusiasm with which he presented his report, and wondering at the often difficult circumstances in which he and his colleagues were working. Having stumbled again upon this report whilst looking for something quite different in the AFID conference proceedings, I found myself thinking about this dedicated professional and his colleagues, and wondering what their circumstances must be now.
The devastating earthquakes that have destroyed so many lives and so much of the infrastructure in Nepal over the past month, has brought the country sharply into focus. This remote region, a favoured destination for mountaineers and wealthy tourists has suffered the most horrendous trauma, leaving its population in fear and despair. As with any such natural disaster, those who have suffered the greatest losses are the most vulnerable within the country. Television images of destroyed towns and villages, with people living in tents and queuing for basic necessities such as food and water, provide a graphic reminder of the destructive power of nature and its impact upon the lives of the victims of this terrible event.
Inevitably I found myself wondering about the fate of Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues. Whatever their situation it is probable that much of the effort that they have made over so many years, to provide facilities and improve the lives of people with disabilities, will have been destroyed. It will obviously take many years to restore Nepal to the situation that existed prior to the earthquakes that so cruelly struck this region. I suspect that it will be a long time before the good work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities is once again supporting vulnerable individuals and their families. However, having met Sachidanand Shrivastava I am convinced that even as I write this blog, he will be formulating a plan to continue the work to which he has been so committed over many years. At present it must seem that normality will never be restored, but we must have faith in the fortitude of individuals who will rebuild Nepalese society over the coming years.
I do hope that Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues are safe, and that I will have an opportunity to hear more about the work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities in Nepal in the future.