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A coming together of special needs families - My Take by Gopi Ramakrishnan, co-founder of SCAN

Having a family member with special needs can sometimes put you in a lonely place. A community or network can bring immense support in such circumstances and in My Take this week, Gopinath Ramakrishnan, co-founder of SCAN, one such network in Chennai, talks about what goes into making such a network truly nurturing and inclusive.

In June 2012, my wife Mini and I started a yoga program for special needs families at our home in Chennai, along with another couple, Mala and Chinnappa.

How SCAN was born

Over a period of time we found that, in addition to the yoga practice itself, the coming together of special needs families in a relaxed environment had a very positive impact on both the children and parents. We also found that there were many parents of special needs children who were looking for such peer interaction and socialising opportunities. This led to us forming a parent support group for special needs families called Special Child Assistance Network, in 2015.

SCAN reaches out to kids with various disabilities in Chennai

Today SCAN is a fairly well-known group in Chennai, with around 400 members. We have children with various special needs, ranging from Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Down's Syndrome, Intellectual Disability, Dyslexia, ADHD, etc.

Recently we have registered as a trust and our focus is on providing a platform for interaction for the special needs community and supporters. The range includes special needs families made up of parents, children, siblings and caregivers, people working with them like educators, therapists, etc., and people interested in special needs, or volunteers.

The SCAN platform enables an exchange of information and experiences, regarding therapies, schools, diets, and so on. It also also provides opportunities for social interaction. While this is mostly a virtual group, with all of us on an app called Telegram, we have also organised a number of programs for families to physically meet and interact.

We plan to expand the scope of activities through workshops, seminars and experience sharing, therapies and training for children, social events like picnics, movies etc., advocacy and rights, networking and community outreach, and form a panel of experts to guide parents on special needs issues.

Our support center for special needs called Mitr was started by a parent. Here we hold workshops, parent meets, etc. We run a Mitr Café on Sunday evenings, which is a social occasion for special needs families, where the children help prepare and serve food. We have fun activities like traditional Indian games, music performances, story-telling, Zumba, etc. We also have special programs for occasions like Diwali, Christmas, New Year's, Children's Day, World Autism Day, etc.

Events are kept open to everyone

What makes such events inclusive is that we encourage everyone to participate. Our programs are not restricted to the special needs community. We often have people from the neighbourhood, as well as friends of our members, dropping by. We try to make the venue accessible. This means that we have ramps for wheelchair users, helpers for the visually challenged, and so on.

The sound and light levels are kept such that it does not trouble those with sensory issues. We also encourage parents to bring earmuffs or headphones if they like. And we make sure children can be themselves. There is no pulling them up, or teasing about behaviour that can be seen as odd or funny in other circumstances. When the kids realise they are in a safe place, they relax, and then their parents do!

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