Bringing up and educating a child with special needs requires patience. Many parents find the early years challenging, and it isn’t easy when communities do not respect these individuals. Saraswati Learning Center addresses the needs of these children and helps educate them in a supportive environment.
Reshma Wijaya Bhojwani, Special Needs Educator and Founder of Saraswati Learning Center (SLC) grew up with two cousins who were special needs children. Her parents and also other family members accepted her cousins’ condition with open arms and treated them very well. Reshma enjoyed teaching them how to write, read and never thought they were different.
When she started her family, one of her own children was born with down syndrome. Like other parents, Reshma was distressed about her daughter’s condition, often wondering, she says, “why did this happen to me?”
Thanks to the support of family, she began to focus on her daughter’s future. But, both Reshma and husband were still worried when their daughter turned five as it was difficult to find a school that would provide the right education for their daughter in Jakarta. It led to her establishing Saraswati Learning Center (SLC) in August 2016, a school and non-profit organisation for children with special needs.
“It was so difficult to find a good school with professional teachers for special needs children in Jakarta. So, because the global school unable to overcome my problems, so at that time I focused to take therapy for my daughter. I had to assess her aptitude and explore her potential first rather than her academic ability. Then realised that I needed to open a school for her,” Reshma said.
With a degree in Special Education, and a trained behavioural therapist with 17 years of experience with special needs children, Reshma created the concept of the school. At the beginning, the school was only for their daughter, but after many parents noted that they also had problems finding schools for their children, SLC began accepting other students.
“As a parent, it was hard to say no to them. And at the time I opened the school, it was a bit chaotic, it was like a zoo,” Resham recalled, as children were throwing tantrums, hitting each other and more. “I had to find the right curriculum structure fast. I started the teacher training programme and also a parents’ empowerment programme and then I developed the system, ” Reshma explained.
Besides creating the curriculum structure, Reshma also put together books for students to help them adjust to the different school system. What makes SLC different to other similar schools is it’s not only a school for children with down syndrome but for all children with disabilities including celebral palsy, GDD, dyslexia, autism etc which emphasises attitudinal change and creates a community that cares for differently-abled individuals.
According to Reshma, most schools in Indonesia only accept students with specific cases or diagnoses and they are placed in classes with students without these conditions, but only after being assessed. For Reshma, it is only people’s personal beliefs that such students can’t be together in one school.
Reshma, whose focus is on behaviour, has certain regulations for students who want to study in SLC. They have to be placed in a transition class where they will learn good behaviour and are trained to socialise. When the student has understood what is expected of them, they transition to groups of two or three to be assessed, then, SLC makes a decision on what class is best suited to the student.
“Behaviour is important. I don’t believe in a system that prioritises the academic side first, because academics are easy. It’s about memorizing and drilling the knowledge. And it’s important to teach them good behaviour when they’re still little, because it’s harder when they reach seven or eight years, their body is already big and strong. If they rebel we hard to handle them,” Reshma said.
For the first year, SLC just opened small classes, then developed further in the second year by opening vocational classes for students above 18 years old, to empower adults to work by providing them skills and work experience. SLC is also open for expatriate students who speak English and therapy services ranging from speech to occupational to meet the child’s needs.
SLC also has an Early Intervention Program (EIP) class for the zero to four years old bracket, which empowering parents to start early intervention for their child. SLC trains and provides assessments to parents on how to handle their child at home until their child is ready to go to school. SLC is also open to students who come from less economically privileged families and orphanages.
Reshma, who actively raises awareness, has created a community where she invites people to fight for the rights of special needs individuals who can work and earn a living, have friends and be part of other groups without being segregated. She initiated a campaign “Jakarta Inclusive” in the “International Day on Persons with Disabilities” event at Monas on 2 December last year. The campaign was to create awareness and acceptance of individuals with different abilities in the Jakarta community.