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Awareness for special needs in children low among parents, says MPower’s Neerja Birla

At ThePrint’s OffTheCuff with Shekhar Gupta, Birla said ‘just a call, just one five-minute conversation' is enough to prevent a person from taking his life.

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New Delhi: Many parents are unable to identify learning disabilities in their children and unwilling to enroll them in schools that offer alternative study methods, Chairperson of MPower Neerja Birla said Saturday, adding that there was still a stigma against children who did not study in mainstream schools.

Birla was speaking during the latest episode of ThePrint’s OffTheCuff with Shekhar Gupta.

“The awareness for special needs is very low among parents,” she said, noting that people still did not understand the difference between intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities.

“It’s very difficult to convince parents that their child actually has special needs, and needs a very different kind of instructional method,” the mental health advocate said.

“Children who are intellectually disabled, are easy to identify. But children who are in-between — where they don’t have an intellectual disability, but who have a learning disability – that’s where the awareness is really lacking,” she said.

In most mainstream schools, the number of students is so large that teachers cannot really pay attention to the individual needs of students, Birla added.

She felt that with creating awareness about mental health, it was also imperative to create awareness about children with special needs.

“They are very, very bright and talented kids, but they may just learn in a different manner. Very often… when they come into grade five and six… they are not able to cope with a mainstream school… because they just need a different instructional method when the problems creep up,” Birla said.

Parents then find it difficult to respond to their needs because there is a huge stigma, and they want the child to be in a mainstream school. “Anything other than the mainstream is very stigmatised,” she said.

Birla felt there was a huge shortage of psychiatrists in India when she was building the initiative MPower which, according to its website, says, “In order to empower professionals, teachers, parents and families of the community, we, at Mpower, work towards creating a body of knowledge, expertise and specialists in the field of mental health” and provide those in need with resources, training, evaluation, interventions and counselling.

“We have a centre in Bangalore and we want to increase the number of doctors that we have there. We are looking for a child psychiatrist in Bangalore, but we cannot find one,” Birla said.

She said the demand for psychiatrists would increase if the awareness around mental health went up.

“I think if the demand for psychiatrists increases, the medical fraternity will also realise that there is a need for it. And hopefully, we’ll have more medical colleges, offering more courses for psychiatry as well,” she said.

Birla also said the space for online counselling was expanding and there may arise a need for a government regulator to ensure that people get quality care on the web.

“Having said that, if the basic qualification of a counselor is there, then tele-health is a great way to actually reach out to people… and the psychological distress can at least be controlled,” Birla said.

“Often just a call, just one five-minute conversation is enough to actually prevent a person from taking his life, to prevent a suicide. So keeping that in mind, it’s a great service,” she added.

Also read: Why 75% of India’s disabled kids never attend a school in their lifetime


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