There are mothers out there, and then there are mothers who do not share the same genealogy with you. These are people who expound love and caring to all – regardless of race, religion, social status and even any physical and emotional challenges. We call them inclusive moms, who propagate care and attention to those who are not even their offsprings, yet look for ways to better the lot of those who are marginalised and are different than their peers.
One such person is Anne Subashini who propagated inclusive education some 20 years ago and eventually made it a reality for those who who can benefit from it.
On this day, three years ago, my son Ahmad Ziqri, who is categorised as Classically Autistic, had to face a daunting situation with the police on his birthday. And Anne was there, right from the time the report was made the night before and the presence in the magistrate’s court. Not only that, Anne reached to the father of her two children, the late lawyer Gerard Lazarus, who extended his legal firm’s services to manage the situation. Gerard and his team of legal experts helped Ziqri right until the time we received the No Further Action notification last year and shortly thereafter, the Lord had other plans for Gerard and he left us in late November 2020. May his soul rest in peace, while his legacy lives on.
Anne began her activism work when she started the Children’s World Kindergarten in 2003 and she took in the differently-abled children like those under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and a few other different needs. But what makes her programme interesting is that she integrates these special needs children with those who are typically-developing. Voila, she has created a society that has empathy and a caring attitude. Those who are typically-developing will be the role models for those who prefer to take their time in developing certain skills. And these typically-developing children will grow up to be caring young adults who will go all out to help and develop other marginalised individuals.
Two such persons that are a true testament of Anne’s advocacy are her daughters, Rishika and Shilpa. Both of them have always participated in most of the inclusion activities organised by Anne and her team of volunteers, so much so that Rishika decided to take up speech therapy studies while Shilpa did early childhood education and an executive diploma in autism. The two siblings took that brave decision so that they can come back and give back to the society that their mum has been advocating for. They were also inspired by Gerard who tried his best to be present at Anne’s activities and their grandparents, Marlene and Paul, who were also the rocks behind their mum’s activism works.
Bold And Innovative
“The inception of The Inclusive Outdoor Classroom (IOC) from our home was bold and definitely an innovative move by my mum, making the most of her available resources at that time. There were no available spaces for children of different abilities to socialise, learn and play in Subang Jaya then, so she decided to do it from the comfort of our home,” said Rishika Lazarus.
“My exposure to inclusion started from as young as six years old, and it definitely shaped me to be the person I am today – it even influenced my career path. I’m a speech therapist today because I believe that all individuals have the right to be treated equally and to be heard.”
Walking the talk, since 1990 Anne Sivanathan has been working with, advocating for and in partnership, with agencies – both government and non-profit – interested in promoting inclusive education in early childhood and primary school environments. Prior to her work experience, she received her formal training in the UK where she majored in Special Education.
She has presented at local and international conferences on topics concerning Inclusion. She consulted for British Council on the programme ‘sports for all’, lectures on the topic of disability in universities locally and internationally. If that’s not all, she is a co-leader in the inclusion working group – and is also a board member of the International Advisory Group, World Forum Foundation, USA.
In Malaysia, Anne serves as an Executive Committee member in the National Association of Early Childhood Care and Education Malaysia (NAECCEM) and is the Secretary-General of the National Autism society of Malaysia (NASOM). Closer to home, she is a community leader in Majlis Perwakilan Penduduk Zone 3, Majlis Bandaraya Subang Jaya (MBSJ).
Among her accolades was receiving a scholarship around her work advocating for Inclusive Education from the World Forum Foundation (USA), British Council (Malaysia), UK Trade Investment and the Selangor State Government. She was conferred the Wira Awani award by Astro in 2016 for her work around Inclusive Education and was nominated in the TOP THREE of the #STANDTOGETHER 2019 Kindest Awards (Teacher).
Anne’s work in Malaysia has been noticed by the international community whereby some of the members have come over to observe some of the IOC activities. Two such persons are Kirsten Haugen from Oregon, a collaborator, writer, mentor, presenter promoting a quality start for all children and support for the adults who care for them and Dr Loren Weybright, a retired professor and educational consultant from New York.
Kirsten observed that activities at IOC are carefully chosen to be adaptable and engaging for children of all abilities including those with unique or complex challenges.
“I have been following the evolution of the IOC, since its inception and finally got to visit in person in March 2019. The long-term involvement of many children and families speak volumes to the unique niche this programmes fills. At first glance, it looks like it’s all fun and games, and it is. But a closer look reveals some very thoughtful strategies behind the fun. Every child is welcomed and if willing, brought to the centre of the activities in meaningful ways to participate.
“Parents and volunteers are given training and support to enhance their abilities to work and play with each child so the children’s interests and perspectives are respected,” observed Kirsten.
She finds it rare to have a programme that successfully includes even a single child with unique or complex challenges. “But the IOC brings together people with a range of abilities and challenges and does it with joy and celebration. The day I joined in, so did children and teens with autism, deafness, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and more. But in IOC, those diagnoses don’t define them.”
Genuine And Real
She added that the IOC “family” looks at these individuals and sees them paint, draw, read, study history, collect rubber bands, love, travel and so much more. In the IOC, the smiles are genuine and inclusion is real, not contrived.
Loren echoes Kirsten’s observations and he has been present at some IOC activities, both in Malaysia and other parts of the world. At one session where he listened to a talk by an IOC alumni, Aidel Morshidi, who is a history buff, thanks to the IOC guiding him to build up his confidence, Dr Loren has this to say:
“I would like to say again how engaging Saturday’s event was for me and certainly, all others. I’ve always appreciated the environment you and your families have created for all the children and the rest of us too. IOC has become a place where we all learn about each other and ourselves.” Note: Aidel has grown to write articles on world politics which have been published in NMH here, here and here.
The IOC is also a place that acts as a support group for the parents. One such parent is Manjula Aryaduray. Together with her husband Miin Tze and triplets Nikhiil, Tisya and Tara, they drive all the way from Mont Kiara in KL to the IOC Clubhouse in USJ to join in the activities.
“It was late 2016 when I first met Anne. A friend whose child attended the IOC encouraged me to bring my children there too as it would be a good experience for my son who has cerebral palsy. From our first encounter, Anne welcomed my children with such warmth that they were happy to return on a regular basis.
“At IOC every activity is planned meticulously by Anne, who is always careful to ensure her team of volunteers are well-prepared on all the quirks and challenges that every single child at the IOC faces. She herself always pays close attention to the young participants and takes notice of what makes them tick. An advocate at heart, she spreads her passion onto volunteer team members and I’ve witnessed these young people grow and blossom into leadership roles under her guidance. She even encouraged and motivated my daughters to speak and educate others on their brother’s disability.”
Manju disclosed that her daughters have since fallen naturally into their roles as effective advocates for their brother. “My son himself has grown in confidence and interacts comfortably with all around him now. He formed strong bonds with some team members and has had amazing opportunities to meet and be heard by community leaders and members in Parliament. Knowing that his voice matters has been an empowering journey for him. Our family will always be grateful to Anne and the IOC.”
For Sheryll Chan, Brian’s IOC activities also started in 2016. She said that what Brian needed was a social platform and suitable language input.
“We diligently attended the activities, although it’s a lot of sacrifices to wake up early as we stay about 20km away. Brian at that time was turning 16. He speaks softly and often when needed. He speaks a lot more to Anne though and enjoys the football routines, drum circle which we all enjoy too and the art activities at the park.
“Us parents have warmed up to one another and the rapport is good. When the child is relaxed and looks forward to the activities, mothers know something good is happening,” said Sheryll.
In 2018, Anne proposed to the parents about a learning trip to New York. The Big Apple! How exciting, although they had much to prepare: the funds, visa and proper clothing, not to mention the hotel and homestay bookings. “And to partake this with Anne and some volunteers and parents! Oh, it was just too good a chance to miss!”
So for the team that went to NY, it was time to start lesson plans as they always do when they visit a country. “To me, bringing Brian to travel is opening doors for him to experience and explore. We finally got the itinerary and visa in order. The accommodation bookings brought our heads together, all wanting to be near the schools so as to save on transport. That was challenging being a first timer to the United States.”
The team had to fundraise to buy gifts for the school administrators at the facilities they were going to visit. They worked hard on that and when the big day came, Sheryll and her two sons arrived in New York on the 08 November 2018.
“We explored Manhattan for four days before meeting up with Anne and the rest of the crew. A family from the Bahamas had stayed in the same hotel as us in Manhattan.”
Sheryll shared their Brooklyn story which began with them conjugating at the Maple Street school. It was a rainy morning, but it did not dampen their spirits.
“We started off visiting the Rivendel school. Brian had a good start. He read a book to his friends. He was at ease, and that set the stage. He enjoyed the visits and social meetings and was at ease with the people he met. Me, as a teacher looked more in-depth into their thematic teaching.
“Our group set out to Prospect Park, walked Brooklyn Bridge and had day trips to Brooklyn and Manhattan. We had train rides and meals together. We enjoyed every moment of it. And it snowed! And on the last day in Brooklyn, we had a cultural exchange.”
Everyone wore their traditional costumes and there were dances and songs together and an all-Malaysian meal planned prepared by our IOC parents. They sold soaps and other souvenirs made by IOC families.
“After a 12-day stay, we headed home, a bagful of memories that makes me smile to this day. I’d do it again!” said an enthused Sheryll.
For this writer, to sum up Anne’s achievements in one story is not an easy task to do. But an IOC mum, Zamidah Zainal says it so well: Anne is passionate, dedicated and very committed to her cause involving individuals with special needs. She will bend over backwards, push aside any shyness and bulldoze her way to get what she sees fit for IOC, be it financial or in kind.
With the new normal, the IOC has taken its advocacy work online, and successfully too at that. Isn’t that deserving of more accolades? – New Malaysia Herald