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March 27, 2011

In a special place

Where love blossoms: Frances (left) and Gautam at Camphill Community. Photo: Jo Chopra

Beyond rights, what most of us want is to be accepted and loved. A community in Bengaluru for adults with special needs provides just that. JO CHOPRA
S ome experiences are so powerful you have to let them settle a while before you can say anything coherent. And even then, the questions they raise continue to disturb and to challenge.

The Camphill Community in Bengaluru is a residential home for adults with mental handicaps. It's run by a Dutch woman and a South Indian man, along with a staff of seven local people and a host of young volunteers from all over the world.

My friend Shaila and I had gone there recently. We arrived to find all the residents on the front verandah of a beautiful, Laurie Baker-style house. Each resident had a companion and as we got closer we could see that Saturday was bath day. Everyone looked damp and very well-scrubbed and the volunteers were all busy clipping the residents finger- and toe-nails and cleaning their ears with Q-tips.

Only too aware

I mention this to dispel any notion that I am sentimental or unaware of the realities of taking care of adults with special needs. My daughter, aged 21, has severe mental and physical difficulties and there is nothing I have not done for her. Nothing. I know all about that particular reality.

As we approached the verandah, I heard a woman who soon introduced herself as Frances telling the volunteers to be sure to sweep well afterwards because, she said, “Nobody likes walking over someone else's toenail clippings.”

This practical and matter-of-fact attitude permeated the place, as it must whenever there are adult bodies with child-like minds. The most basic of issues which the rest of us handle ourselves and keep to ourselves, assume enormous importance in communities of adults with special needs. But here it was background, a fact like other facts, and nothing more.
What was foreground, indeed, the very ground of their being, was love. I have been to quite a few residential set-ups for adults with special needs but I have never seen anything like this one. This young man in the pink shirt — his name is Gautam — is one example of where I got this idea from . He sat near us as we talked with Frances and he seemed so happy just to be there, close by, simply listening. Frances included him gently in the conversation, teasing him a bit, as a mother might her own child and then sending him off to do whatever it was he was supposed to be doing then.

I know that the “rights-based approach” is what all of us disability activists subscribe to in our work and I know that every person with disability has the same rights that anyone else has. But I also know that there is no law that guarantees love and that without love, there is no real life.

I have seen set-ups where people with special needs are well cared for (though in most I have seen even that is dubious). But that isn't what people yearn for. What we all want, and people with disability are no different, is respect, dignity, love. We want to be accepted as we are. We want people who look after us well because they love us. We want a home.
Core beliefs

Camphill is founded on spiritual principles and the people who work in these communities believe in them deeply. The integrity and inherent worth of every human being is at the centre of what they believe — this was so evident in Bengaluru it was hard not to get emotional. Shaila and I felt we were in the presence of something profound and remarkable, as if we were standing on holy ground.

Yet, according to Frances, the gift is more often not to the residents but to those who take care of them. So often, she explained, volunteers come because they want to do something for society. Yet they themselves are broken and in need of care — love affairs gone wrong, no direction in their lives, a soulless marriage or a deadening career — and their year at Camphill allows them to be healed. By caring for people who are — willingly or not — out of the game of ambition and achievement and success, they are freed to step back and look at their own lives, to see what needs to be let go of and to move forward in a more genuine, truthful way.

I was struck by this photograph of Frances with the dog which they had — of course — rescued from the street. The respect and interest each seems to have for the other is the hallmark of what we saw at Camphill. There is nothing remotely sentimental about it: toenail clippings on the floor, I keep saying to myself. It's about reality, about respect, about dignity. It's about love. I saw it myself.

I felt we were in the presence of something profound and remarkable