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New study underlines how kids with autism are more vulnerable to abuse at schools, therapy centres

The recent death of a child with autism at a school in Kolkata has thrown the spotlight on centres that reach out to people with disabilities.

There are thousands of schools and exclusive therapy centres that claim to help children and adults with disabilities, but who is monitoring them? There is a need to look into this, especially in light of a recent study by experts that says children with autism are more vulnerable to abuse at schools and therapy centres.

Last year, a case in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala came to light when a therapy centre was accused of abusing a child with autism after he refused to eat his food. The staff forced the food into his mouth, even after it fell on the floor. This was done in front of the mother, whose protests were ignored.

There was massive outrage and after much pressure, the government drafted a set of guidelines relating to the management of private therapy centres for disabled children in the state.

Seema Lal, Co-founder, TogetherWeCan, a child rights advocacy group, says the guidelines have been implemented in therapy centres across Kerala. One of the rules is that a parent or primary caregiver has to be with the child in the therapy centre.

Parents must not opt for a centre where they are not respected, included or accepted. They must be clearly aware of what is happening inside the centre. Denying parents of these rights by staff is unethical and illegal. Moreover, there need to be strict regulations in place. There is no monitoring body that keeps a look out to abuse cases at therapy centre or special schools. That has to come in place. Most of the times, parents keep mum about abuses because they do not have the time or energy to go behind cases. Revamping of the system is need of the hour. -Seema Lal, Co-founder, TogetherWeCan

There are solutions to this. Parents have to be more wary and careful. Closely monitor your child wherever they go. Disabled children may struggle to communicate clearly so keep a close watchespecially when they are at schools or inside therapy rooms with their therapists.

Many countries in the West keep cameras in schools and therapy centres, which is not widely practiced in India. The visuals are shown to parents upon request. There are exclusive hotline numbers as well where parents can call and complain if they come across any injustice towards their child. Indian therapy centres can follow all these.

According to experts, boarding schools for disabled children must be closely monitored because chances of abusing a child are more at such facilities. Many parents admit their children in boarding schools to finish off their responsibilities. Over the years, there have been numerous cases where disabled children have been starved, beaten up and even sexually harassed at such facilities.

Shiny Vinson, Principal, Navajeevan School, a centre for kids with disabilities, says Kerala has a better record than many other states.

"I believe that abuse cases towards disabled children are much lesser in Kerala. But we never know. It can happen anytime and anywhere. Many parents have complained to me about disabled children in hostels and boarding facilities being abused. I have closely worked with disabled children for many years. I would never suggest a boarding facility for them. Children with disabilities can be empowered only if their parents and teachers work closely together", says Vinson.

The Kolkata incident shows that it is time to actively look at setting up guidelines that will empower children and their families.

ALSO READ: Disability rights groups in Kolkata push for better monitoring systems after death of child with autism

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