Kullu, India – A bus in bright blue and mustard yellow stops by the side of the road in Badah, a remote village in the Himalayan mountains of the Kullu district of the state of Himachal Pradesh.
The bus, more like a minibus, seems like any other commuter vehicle that carries thousands of tourists across the mountain state in northern India every year.
But this one is different.
When the back door of the bus opens and an electronic ramp is lowered, 7-year-old Mridul is carried in by his mother Shakti Bhardwaj.
Rekha Thakur and Rejju Kumari work with Mridul on the Therapy on Wheels bus [Shail Desai/AL JAZEERA]For the next hour, Mridul is working on his mobility with the physiotherapist Rekha Thakur, also co-founder of the Aash Child Development Center.
After completing the session, the child gets into a car to bring them back from the comfort of their home while the bus drives to the next destination.
On the occasion of World Disability Day, on December 3rd last year, Aash employees introduced the blue and yellow minibus as part of their “Therapy on Wheels” program.
The initiative aims to make treatment available to children with developmental disabilities across Himachal Pradesh.
It brought hope – Aash means “hope” in the local dialect – for mothers like Shakti, who would otherwise have to laboriously commute to a center in the town of Kullu, which is an hour away.
Rekha Thakur (left) and Shruti More, co-founders of Aash, in the center of Kullu [Shail Desai/AL JAZEERA]The idea came to co-founder Shruti More, a trained occupational therapist, when she was taking a bus trip more than a year ago.
“I joked with a friend, ‘what if we had a bus that our entire center could stand on?’ Somehow it stayed with me there, ”recalls More.
The bus, funded by India’s Renewable Energy Development Agency, is a mobile therapy clinic and has equipment that therapists need, including a treadmill.
“We have no restrictions on tools or equipment. Everything in the middle is now in the minibus, ”says More.
“The therapy intervention we offer is playful. So when developing the minibus, we had to make sure that it wasn’t associated with a visit to a doctor or a clinic. It’s supposed to be a happy place. “
In the past, the team traveled to remote corners of the state to work with children. The restrictions were numerous and the inability to carry equipment to their homes was frustrating.
The other option was to bring the children to the center – an ordeal for boys like five-year-old Reyansh, who has cerebral palsy.
Reyansh had to be carried to the nearest bus stop during a 90-minute hike through the jungle, followed by a one-hour bus ride.
As a result, most children living in distant regions only had access to therapy when the team could visit them.
“Travel is a big problem for some, especially children who are now older and cannot be carried around. The weather is also an important factor in the mountains. We have around 170 children registered with us, but most of them have not been able to reach them in the past. For many, we covered half the distance by bus, ”says Thakur.
The best ages to work with children who show signs of developmental delay is between 0 and 7 years of age. Here the Aash team works with Vivaan, who is a little over a year old [Shail Desai/AL JAZEERA]Most of the children the team works with come from newborns up to seven years of age. This is considered to be the best time for early intervention to correct developmental delays.
“A child begins to roll at six months and stands after about a year. If for some reason he is unable to meet these milestones, we call them developmental delays. Beyond seven, we usually call it a disability, unless the damage is more permanent than genetic or physiological conditions, ”explains More.
According to the 2011 census, Himachal Pradesh has 31,204 disabled residents between the ages of 0-19 years. The state has no facilities to combat such diseases, especially for children.
Most families in the past had to travel to Chandigarh or the state capital New Delhi – both of which required overnight bus rides – to receive treatment or therapy for their children.
This makes Aash’s work all the more critical as the team is gradually expanding its network across the state.
In some distant districts such as Spiti and Lahaul, the team has run camps and placed elementary school teachers from these regions in their Kullu training center.
While things are more rational these days, the team says it was different in the beginning. At that time there was little awareness of curative treatment for children with developmental problems.
Thakur recalls cases where parents would not take children with disabilities outside of their homes. Others said they did not find any need for intervention, even if the first signs were evident.
In a region that places a lot of trust in local deities, More realized that many people would seek out a “gur” or priest to find solutions rather than resort to therapy.
In this Himalayan region, most of the villages have a “gur”, a shaman-like figure who helps the villagers to communicate with their deity.
“It’s a difficult situation that needs to be approached with caution when it comes to people’s beliefs. We tell them to follow the spiritual path but also to work on therapy as a possible solution, ”says Beeju, a team member who bears his first name and works with local communities to spread awareness.
Last year the team decided to take advantage of the annual Dussehra Festival, where residents from all over the valley in Kullu gather for celebrations. They went around spreading information about their work.
Over time, they found that many new cases came in after the celebrations.
Before visiting a new area, Beeju said he reached out to local health workers and councilors to publicize their work and identify children in need of therapy.
The Therapy on Wheels bus visits remote areas of the state of Himachal Pradesh [Shail Desai/AL JAZEERA]The minibus accompanies a mobile clinic at the government hospital in Kullu three times a week. Aash hopes to work with the central government in the future to set up early intervention centers across the state.
“In Himachal [Pradesh]The care of people with disabilities is at a very young stage compared to other countries. (We) hope to increase our reach in order to have a greater impact, ”says More.
Every few months, Aash conducts sessions for parents to help them build their own support system and help them cope with the condition of their children.
“I would get very upset in dealing with my son Shivansh. There was a time when he didn’t know how to get up or walk off the floor. I would be upset because I compared him to other children, ”says Bharti Chauhan, a mother.
“The most important thing I learned from these sessions is to be patient. It has helped both of us make progress. It’s an incredible feeling to see him alone these days. “
Aash’s efforts over the years are beginning to bear fruit. Years after being paralyzed, Shivansh is now mobile. Mridul can eat himself.
“As we imagined, we wanted to reach every child in need of therapy. And we can do that today, something that really fulfills, ”says More.