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Autism Day initiative brings together artists & children on one platform to promote inclusion

Splashes of colour, laughter and excited voices filled the air as over 15 leading artists mentored small groups of children as they gave expression to their vision of inclusion on canvas.

The occasion was a unique art initiative organized on World Autism Awareness Day in Mumbai. The theme of the two-hour-long event organized by Jai Vakeel Foundation & Research Centre was To a more inclusive world we remain committed.

Jai Vakeel Foundation & Research Centre, India's oldest and largest non-profit, has been working to empower people with intellectual disabilities. for 75 years. Art being an integral aspect of the curriculum followed here, the exhibition was an inevitable, almost organic event says Kaezryn Mistry, who conceptualized the event.

A final year student at ISDI Parsons, Mistry was introduced to Jai Vakeel through her mentor.

"I had been researching topics I was passionate about and I could conduct my thesis project on. I first visited Jai Vakeel in February, and have since then fallen in love with the children, teachers, the volunteers and their aim towards inclusivity and empowerment of intellectually disabled children., says Mistry.

The unique initiative brought together six prominent Mumbai schools - Cathedral & John Cannon, Bombay International, Dhirubhai Ambani International school, Ascend International, Jamnabai Narsee International and JB Petit. . Children from these schools have interactions on a regular basis with the children at Jai Vakeel as part of a community integration program started four years ago.

Each artist mentored a small group of children to create their individual piece on a single canvas, with all 75 pieces finally merging to form one final work of art.

The vision of Jai Vakeel is to ensure inclusion for all, this initiative is a step in that direction. I am grateful to the artists for being a partner with us in this endeavour and for their generosity. - Archana Chandra, CEO, Jai Vakeel Foundation & Research Centre

Through such engagements with schools, Jai Vakeel aims to build greater integration. "It is hard to feel like you are part of a community from the outside, says Panda. "They want to experience belonging. Through our community integration program we actively invite students from various schools and colleges onto our campus where they get to bond and learn from each other despite their differences. They also visit their campuses and even go on field trips together.

The experience has changed their students, helping to build greater empathy and sensitization, says Damayanti Bhattacharya, Principal, Middle School, Cathedral & John Connon School. "Our children live in a cocooned and protected environment and these interactions have opened up a facet and part of life they would not be normally exposed to.

The interactions have also helped build a conversation about inclusion, which is necessary.

"Students and children are the prime population to take inclusion into the future so this is a way to start conversations about this, believes Ryana Mehta, Counselor, JB Petit School. "When our children come back from these interactions, there is gratitude and a certain understanding that it's not disability but invisibility that is the biggest challenge these children face.

Ariaan Bajaj, a class 6 student of Bombay International School has been a part of the field trips with the children at Jai Vakeel for a few years now. "Sometimes they come to our school and we go to theirs too. I really enjoy meeting them and they are different from us in some ways, which is interesting.

Over 26 million people in India have an intellectual disability. That's one in every 50, a significant number. But they are an invisible, marginalized presence. The result is that their needs go unnoticed and unaddressed. Initiatives like these offer a platform to bring them out of the shadows and showcase their strengths and abilities.

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