The stereotypes of autism have witnessed a considerable proliferation over the past 20 years or so. Autistic people made it to the central characters of novels and movies and have been featured as subjects of biographies or autobiographies, epitomes in marital guidance books and even in the school textbooks. But little are we able to perceive the true potential and warmth from these representations or stereotypical imagery of people with autism.
Before stepping into the modest red brick establishment of Parents’ Forum for Differently Ables’ Vocation Training Centre, an autistic person to me was just a person of average or below average intelligence, who may struggle with issues related to social interaction and communication. It took only a minute to change my perception forever, and I wasn’t alone in this.
Founded in 2014, the centre is a training institute for the developmentally challenged above the age of 15 and it was the day (April 3) when the bunch of differently-abled youths were waiting for “the travelling princess,” Maria Amor Torres, to visit them in the facility.
To make the Filipino social activist’s visit a welcome one, I saw some of the ardent youngsters busy decorating the stage in the ground floor of the building only to showcase their wonderfully undaunted cultural skills later in a short cultural ceremony in the honour of the Princess. The floor also houses a cozy restaurant run by none other than these spry people with special abilities.
We followed the princess, who is also the founder and president of We Care For Humanity; the honorary consulate of Chile in Bangladesh, Asif A Chowdhury; and the founding Chairman of the training Center Sajida Rahman Danny. Upstairs, we discovered a buoyant new world for the youngsters. Guided by a pool of skilled mentors, the youngsters were absorbed in mastering a wide array of life skills. In the Tie Dye Section, they learn swinging, designing, scaling and coloring clothes. They are also quite proficient in blocs, beads and ICT.
The alluring quality of the products they made did not fail to attract the princess, who eventually couldn’t resist collecting her share of the curios. Astonished by their professionalism, she said that the products deserve a larger consumer attention “They are better skilled and proficient in vocational works than many of us. The designs and quality of their hand-made products are really amazing and deserves a better treatment.” Calling on local actors and celebrities to join hand with the developmentally challenged youngsters, Princess Maria Amor Torres said, “I will surely put my best in promoting their wonderful creations. Local actors and celebrities can make a huge impact by promoting their products.”
The VTC, which is the training centre instituted under PFDA, has previously represented Bangladesh in Hong Kong and bagged two international awards- Best visual Effects award and the Excellence Performance, at the Autistic Talent Gala 2017. As we entered the IT room, it seemed quite busy; some youths working on data entry, while others gathered to finalize the greeting card they made for Pohela Baishakh.
The VTC has successfully implemented Bangladesh Skills for Employment and Productivity (B-SEP) Project for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs)’ funded by ILO from 11 March 2017 till 10 March 2018 and developed a 360 hours curriculum and module on Baking and on Food Service for the special needs persons. Out of the 205 persons who completed training, 52 are now professionally placed in jobs in government institutes, 3 star hotels, chain shop outlets, coffee and pastry shops etc, while 20 persons are waiting job placements.
The organization also distributed seed money to 21 individuals to develop their own business. Agreements were signed with Shwapno Retail Shop, Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) and Signature and Coffee to increase the employability and mainstreaming process of the differently able people. The VTC motivates employers to employ 2/3 special persons in a group so that they can provide emotional support and empathy for each other.
The liveliness and warmth of the youngsters touched the Princess to tears, as was evident in her concluding speech. “I have visited many special education centres in different corners of the world, including USA, Philippines and South Africa, but most of them are focused on serving these people. What makes PFDA-VTC a stand out is that it went beyond service and is focused on making them self-reliant. It is in fact nurturing them to build a dignified life,” she said.
Princess Torres concluded on a laudatory and optimistic note, saying, “I earnestly believe that the VTC will soon be a role model for global organizations working to ensure the rights of differently able people.” And like me, the short tour to the PFDA-Vocational Training Centre “was indeed an equally inspiring and perception-changing experience” for her.