Disability Studies goes to India

This was written by current student Brandon Arkinson.

photograph of the four Ryerson students standing in a large group of people
Ryerson students with a group of school children from the tribal settlement of Komalikudi in Idukki District of Kerala.

In August of 2015, four Ryerson students travelled to Amrita University in India. Two of those (Brandon Arkinson, and Heather Norris) students represented the Disability Studies program, while two other students represented the Child and Youth Care program. Teams were paired with five Indian students, from the Coimbatore campus of Amrita University, who were enrolled in the Masters of Social Work program. Together, the Ryerson and Amrita students collaborated and created a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional curriculum for use at a tribal village, located near the community of Bison Valley. The curriculum covered English immersion, foundational instruction in mathematics, tablet based learning, public-health awareness, alcohol – substance awareness and cessation, community and environmental outreach, integrated engagement and community development through sport, implementation of a community ambassador program, and a cultural exchange.

photograph of green hills with dark clouds
Rolling green hills of tea: Upon completing our placement in Komalikuddi, Bison Valley, Idukki District, Kerala State (Southern India), we were given a single day of reprieve before compiling our final report and presentation. On our way back to the university, we stopped at Hill Station Munnar to observe the nature preserve and the terraced tea plantations growing fresh Chai. The aroma was simultaneously overwhelming and amazing.

The Ryerson students focused their attention primarily on the village of Komalikuddi, in the Bison Valley, Idukki district, Kerala state, India. This small village, or “kuddi”, consisted of approximately forty families, and had a total population of approximately 200 individuals. While there, the Ryerson team worked with community members on multiple initiatives to foster understanding, develop rapport, and appreciate local culture. The community was largely agrarian based and primarily harvested a plant called cardamom, which is used in coffee and chocolate production. The community elders of Komalikuddi, prior to the Ryerson students arrival, decided to prioritize a special focus on english immersion and mathematics.  The community viewed these components as an integral part of improving their own and children’s lives. As such, the Ryerson students taught a daily curriculum of math and English twice a day, once in the morning at the local school, and secondarily in the afternoon at the multi-grade learning centre. The Ryerson students integrated local methods and tools of instruction with a tablet-based initiative that optimized learning and engagement.

photograph of a map
This photo is of a map that was on the classroom wall. It shows the state of Kerala (where the Ryerson students spent their time) divided by colour into corresponding districts. The map shows the enormous distance we travelled between thurvanthapuram, in the bottom green portion, and Idukki, in the white top-left portion of the map. To travel between the village where we did our placement and Amrita university was a full days travel on the roads of Kerala.

In addition to the formal teaching curriculum, the Ryerson team developed the concept of a ‘safe neutral space’, which was tied to nature through the planting of a ‘sacred grove’. The team was able to source four species of banyan tree, of the peepal and tulsi variety, which is important because they constantly release oxygen and are viewed favourably for their beneficial health-related properties. Amrita University was able to coordinate the visit of a ’swami’, a highly regarded religious individual who wears a bright orange flowing garment, to take part in the planting session and dedicate the area as ‘safe and / or sacred’. The team also focused on community development by engaging the teenage demographic, who had become misunderstood and marginalized by the village elders, through a sports based initiative. The team was able to use soccer to develop understanding and bridge cultural differences by employing positive reinforcement and engagement. The teenaged demographic displayed a marked improvement in team-work, respect, collaboration, responsibility, sportsmanship, and confidence. Tangibly, the integrated engagement through sport program witnessed a complete cessation of stimulant use among the demographic, developed public health awareness in the areas of oral hygiene, spitting and hand-washing, and dismantled marginalized ideals by bringing both elders and the youth together in sport.

a photograph of Brandon and several men
The group: This is a photo of half the teenage males I provided afternoon programming for on a daily basis. This was the losing team of a soccer match, smiling and bonding despite the loss. On this day, we played soccer on the edge of a sheer cliff, you can see the drop off in the background as the canopy of the trees rise into the photo behind the group. The community has no recreational or public space, so the teenagers are forced to play on recently harvested fields. They are only allowed to play on a field for a few days before the soil begins to become too compacted and the owner protests, leaving the community without a place to play.

As our programming concluded and the Ryerson team prepared to depart the ‘kuddi’, the children of the community came to say farewell and followed our group down the road yelling ‘tata’ (goodbye), waving with vigour, creating an emotionally charged atmosphere filled with both sadness and pride. You could visually see the metaphorical friendship and bond that had been created through education, which bridged the cultural divide and language barrier. Words cannot adequately describe the profound impact and beauty of that experience. As the Ryerson team departed Bison Valley and headed for the terraced tea-fields of Munnar, a silence fell over the team as we reflected on our experiences. Enroute back to Amrita University, the team sat silently watching the tea fields flash by outside the window, absorbing how the experience had changed our perception and understanding of the world. The experience was in a word, profound.

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