A small victory. But a significant one.
A month back we launched a month long ‘Stories for Inclusion’ Festival where neurodiverse kids and young adults share their stories through art/video/text and neurotypical kids watch them, engage with them and share messages for these wonderful storytellers, every single day!
We found 2nd August Friendship Day as a perfect day to usher in a new flavour to friendship- Listen to new stories, make different friends.
Of course, as a team, we were excited but also quite nervous!
There were no previous instances of a festival like this, connecting the otherwise siloed communities. Yes, as India’s largest publishing platform for kids from 145+ locations worldwide, we know that young people like stories, on varied themes and through varied channels(audio/video/text) but would they warm up to stories from the neurodiverse community? The second key question is if neurodiverse kids even want to share their stories and soak in the spotlight, in the first place.
It seemed like a shot in the dark, until it wasn’t.
Here is what we realized, when the lights were turned on-
- Neurodiverse kids and young adults DO want platforms where they get the spotlight
We were buoyed on by the strong belief of our partner Shivani Dhillon, an award winning social entrepreneur and Founder of Samvid Stories and Beyond, Down Syndrome Support Group India and Fellow, India Inclusion Summit. Shivani has been running storytelling workshops for neurodiverse kids for a while and felt that while neurotypical kids have so many occasions to be celebrated, there are none such for neurodiverse kids.
We were charmed by anecdotes of how her students who instead of listening to her tell stories, often asked her if they can narrate instead! And as a special needs mom herself, she feels that their our so many platforms that highlight and celebrate achievements of neurotypicals but that is far from true for a neurodiverse child. ‘I want my child to be acknowledged’ – This was a comment we heard from parents throughout the fest.
Inclusion comes from seeing
On Bookosmia, we published a poem by 13 year old Akshita Yadav from Nagpur titled ‘I See You’ as she spoke about a neurodiverse girl in her class. You could feel emotion trump information, relatability trump awareness in her poem. As in our own journey traversing this world, we realize the neurotypical community gets bogged down by big, serious, difficult worlds. However when a child sees another child on the screen, telling a story, there is an instant linkage. We start identifying common ground. Interest is kindled, information will follow soon.
Also while neurodiverse is a very big label, it is easier to see and understand that than to read in blogs and information brochures that-
– A child with Down Syndrome is different from one with Autism
– A children with Autism is different from another child with Autism
– All of us have our unique ways of thinking
Neurodiversity doesn’t have to be all serious
Our partner Club Youngistan, an online activity club for young adults with diverse needs and challenges, had already busted this myth for us a few weeks back, playing a remarkably peppy and (true to their name) young, jazzy feel while showcasing interests of their neurodiverse member. It showed us that it is not necessary (or desirable) to make everything around neurodiversity a dreary, serious business. So, cool content? Yes! It can get the eyeballs it deserves.
Inclusion has to start young, not old
While all efforts to have neurodiverse hiring at workplace are fantastic, wouldn’t it be meaningful to have children understand a diverse world exists when they are young and in school. Can an ‘inclusion switch’ be turned on in them as they join the workplace and start hiring. Wouldn’t it be more organic if they grow up knowing about diversity and inclusion in schools and colleges while 6, 12, 16 instead of hearing it for the first time as a hiring manager?
So how could we engage with these youngsters in a way they would enjoy? We did the following :
Panel discussion on Inclusive books and movies
We floated a discussion panel on Zoom- and for once it wasn’t the kind you switch off the video and doze off to! All this talk of diverse books and movies but we never hear from the community it is targeted at – young readers and viewers. This was an attempt to change that. The topic was ‘Inclusive books and movies- Who got it right and who missed the mark?’This panel had four youngsters at the helm – all under 14 and what an insightful discussion it was as they discussed Rick Riordan’s affirming treatment of neurodiverse characters in his blockbuster Percy Jackson series, the subtle references to characters on the spectrum in Harry Potter to movies like Taare Zameen Par and Laal Singh Chaddha where we get a glimpse of how society often mistreats those who are deemed ‘different’ from the rest.
A session on how to write inclusive stories with Lavanya Karthik
One of the surprising revelations of the fest was that young writers often want to include diverse voices in their stories but are reluctant to do so for fear of offending the very same people they want to bat for. Therefore, this session was just what the doctor ordered. Award-winning author and illustrator Lavanya Karthik who has written many wonderful books including ‘When Adil speaks, words dance’ and the Dreamers series, offered her thoughts on inclusion, how to write characters that inspire and what are the elements of a good story that transcends across age groups and backgrounds.
An evening with para athletes to understand resilience
Words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ will remain a word salad if youngsters do not have the opportunity to interact with people who have had different lived experiences to them Therefore, it was gladdening for us to collaborate with the wonderful folks at Go Sports Foundation, a non-profit venture working towards the development of some of India’s top talents in Olympic and Paralympic disciplines, to have an evening where our youngsters interviewed exciting young para athletes Rahul Dumpa and Devanshi Satija. Over thoughtful questions (Have you ever felt like giving up) and loads of laughter and smiles, the para athletes shared their personal stories of adversity and how they were working every day to let nothing get in the way of achieving their dreams. A great message for every child who at times feels adequate with their abilities.
The power of stories in inclusion
‘Telling a story’ has a typical connotation to it. It implies that one needs to be verbal, one needs to have a certain cognitive ability in order to recite one or to enjoy one. However, debunking the term ‘story telling’ has been the high point of this fest. 17 year old Sourav who has autism sent us a video showing how he makes a bead necklace with gentle hands and attention. That told a story. 23 year old Asavari strummed a story on her guitar. 10 year old Kabir, who is non verbal, told a story of a tiger who loves to travel, through typed words. 17 year old Anjali from Ranchi, who has dyslexia shared an art work that stunned us but also told her own story.
And these story telling videos weren’t just ‘uploaded’.
They were cherished.
Consider the numbers. Within a few hours of posting 17 year old Harnoor’s (who has Down Syndrome) video compiling the paintings she made to tell the story of Krishna’s birth, the video racked up 400+ views and the comments came flooding – not only from her circle of family and friends but from youngsters across the world who had enjoyed the unique way of telling the story.
For 31 days, we posted a story a day and we were overwhelmed by the diverse set of children responding to them- as young as 8, from the metro cities but also from smaller places like Aligarh and Raipur to international cities like Sharjah and London. Not only were these young viewers (mostly neurotypical) enjoying and commenting on the videos, but they were also sharing them with their friends, signaling an ‘aha’ moment for us in the fest :
That inclusion doesn’t have to be something special we do. It is just another extension of what we do everyday – like the way we wait our turn at the supermarket counter or how we say ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezes.
And finally, that neurodiversity is not someone else’s problem
The fest has shown us that when given an opportunity and an environment to understand, neurotypicals develop the courage to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask but couldn’t for the fear of using the wrong words. These questions will become the cornerstone of the ideas that will invariably lead to real change.
Our partner for the fest, Dr. Swati Popat Vats, a renowned educator and President of the Podar Education Network and ECA-APER with membership of 38,0000+ schools, spoke about the importance of inclusion in classrooms – from training teachers to be more sensitive to children’s abilities especially post pandemic and helping children understand that every child is diverse. It’s just that some children have different needs.
It was heartening to hear 14 year old Aadya, on listening to Arshnoordeep’s (with Down Syndrome) story, say that he wrote a story that every child needs to learn. The key word being ‘every child’. This was one of the many examples of how, through these unique stories and the enthusiastic reception to them, it was clear that inclusion starts from conversations and that understanding neurodiversity is not a favour one does for others.
The onus is on all of us to accept and embrace our differences in order to welcome a beautifully diverse future.
And that, in a nutshell, was the Stories for Inclusion fest. We were overwhelmed by the impact it created, by the outpouring of love and excitement from the parent and caregiver community. So when they recommended we keep this beautiful thing going, beyond the month long fest, we accepted with a big grin. Messages like these from Prachi Deo, Founder of Nayi Disha, powers us on to continue spotlighting our neurodiverse storytellers. Nayi Disha is an organization that plays the role of a life long partner for families impacted by ADHD, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, DownSyndrome and other Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities.
We hope to take our learnings from this edition and come back with a bang next year with more stories, more partners and more happy moments!
And finally we join our co-founder Mugdha Kalra, one of the loudest voices in neurodiversity in India and one of the only 2 Indians on BBC 100 Women 2021, for her work at Not That Different, in her conviction that we do not need to create another world for neurodiverse people. We need our world to be inclusive of neurodiverse people.