Policies & Issues

Creating a Brighter Future for the Differently Abled

Policies & IssuesSep 20, 2023

Creating a Brighter Future for the Differently Abled

GIA is among the supporters of a new school building for children with special needs.

Sahyog entrance
Palanpur, India—In January this year, Sahyog (meaning “collaborative participation” in Gujarati), a new complex for an institution devoted to vocational and educational training of divyang (differently abled) children, was inaugurated in the presence of a large number of diamantaires from different corners of the globe.  
Located in the Indian city of Palanpur, the building houses Mamtamandir run by the Vidyamandir Trust, an institution that provides free education to children with four different types of disabilities—the visually impaired, physically handicapped, hearing impaired and mentally challenged—under one roof.  
The complex also includes a newly opened college that grants master’s degrees in special education, the first institution offering this post-graduate degree in the entire state of Gujarat. (The trust has been granting bachelor’s degrees for special educators for a number of years now.)  
While the new building, named “A Development Space for Divyangs, an Indo-US partnership,” was made possible with a generous grant from the Gemological Institute of America, the institute itself has been nurtured and built by donations from different diamond industry families, allowing it grow from its humble beginnings in the early 1960s.   
Ashish K. Mehta, managing trustee of Vidyamandir Trust, said the idea for Mamtamandir took shape after his father, Kantilal “Kanubhai” Chhotalal, who set up the trust in 1948, attended a lecture in the 1960s given by Padmashri Dr. Rajendra Vyas.  
Vyas was then one of the leading members of the National Association for the Blind and founder of the Blind Men’s Association in India.  
“Kanubhai was inspired by the thought that even those who are ‘disabled’ have the abilities to contribute to the progress of society if properly nurtured and trained,” Ashish said. 
Chhotalal started Mamtamandir in 1963 as a school for the visually impaired and in the decades since, expanded its outreach to include those with other types of disabilities.  
Driven by the vision of helping these children integrate as productive members of society, the Vidyamandir Trust became one of the first institutions in India to implement the vision of integrated education, under which differently abled students joined mainstream institutions whenever possible, enriching the learning experience for all participants. 
Today, the trust runs more than 20 different projects under Mamtamandir, all related to vocational and skill training. 
The new integrated Sahyog complex, spread over 36,000 square feet, aims to take this intervention to a new level.  
It complements some of the older facilities that are housed in separate, and now interconnected, buildings on a contiguous plot. At present, Mamtamandir has an intake of more than 400 differently abled students, boys and girls, challenged by a variety of impairments.  
The institution also runs separate hostels for boys and girls, providing free boarding and lodging to about 300 of its students. 

 Related stories will be right here … 

Creating an integrated structure to satisfy their varied needs was no easy task, said Nishant Mehta, a Mumbai-based and Columbia University-trained architect whose family is from Palanpur and were associated with the diamond industry.  
Nishant led his architectural design firm, Studio NM, in steering the project and described the journey as a deeply fulfilling exercise.  
“We did quite a bit of research about principles followed in different types of institutions and studied universal design guidelines and norms. Yet, some of the most valuable inputs actually came from the practical insights provided by experienced teachers and trustees.”  
“Sahyog exemplifies our shared vision for a world where help is born out of empathy, not sympathy.” — Sriram Natarajan, GIA India  
In fact, Nishant added, the interactions at the local level with these stakeholders were so useful that that they became institutionalized in the form of joint inspections and discussions once every month. 
“The final design has the larger public spaces at the street face of the building, and the spaces for learning tucked away in the quieter part of the campus, with larger workshops housed on the ground level and the classroom spaces and the library on the floors above,” he explained.  
Stressing that the building is barrier-free and goes beyond standard regulations, Nishant highlighted some of the special features that Studio NM incorporated. 
They include the following:  
  • Ceiling heights modulated with double-height spaces and triple-height corridors with bridges, to both achieve visual connectivity through the school and control the echo;
  • A circulation block that spans the length of the façade to protect the main structure from heat;  
  • The use of brick jaalis (meshes), extensively found in the traditional buildings in Palanpur, at a height to allow hot air to be expelled from the corridor and cooler air to enter the lower level; 
  • Skylights to create a choreography of light, allowing visually impaired students with photosensitive skin to orient themselves;   
  • Openings oriented towards the north for the learning spaces, allowing soft, natural north light to permeate and helping to keep the space cool;   
  • Use of the floors as tools for navigation, such as rough and polished Kota stone floors along with tactile flooring used in corridors and classrooms respectively, so the change of texture helps visually impaired students differentiate the spaces;
  • Use of local, low-maintenance plants on campus. Fragrant flowering plants near the entrance activate the olfactory senses and enables identification of entrances by visually impaired students; all chosen plants had rounded leaves to avoid any injuries;
  • A translation of Braille script in Gujarati developed specially for signage in the school; and  
  • Artwork commissioned from local artists. 
Mamtamandir and its latest edifice, Sahyog, form a remarkably poignant example of how the diamond industry in India has been contributing generously to socially significant causes that support long-term development goals.  
Sriram Natarajan, managing director of GIA India, said, “We at GIA India are honored to support the Vidyamandir Trust to build Sahyog. It has been a humbling experience to witness the dedication of the trust towards creating a society where differently abled individuals are not just accepted but embraced as equal partners.  
“Sahyog exemplifies our shared vision for a world where help is born out of empathy, not sympathy. Together, we are taking strides towards a more inclusive and compassionate future.” 

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