Vandana Sehgal along with Prerna runs ‘The Coloured Zebra’, an organization for children and young adults with special needs, and trains kids in life skills, communication and expressiveness through theatre. The Coloured Zebra has been a unique platform catering to specially-abled individuals to showcase their talents and also help them in life skills. Team Optimist spoke to Prerna Sehgal about her journey with The Coloured Zebra. Excerpts…
Team Optimist: How did you come up with The Coloured Zebra (TCZ) idea? Did any specific incident motivate you in forming the organisation? What’s the reason for giving such a name?
Prerna Sehgal: The Coloured Zebra is the brainchild of my mother, Vandana Sehgal. She has been working in this field for over 12 years now and has dealt with hundreds of students with special needs. Although initially, we focused on special education, over time, she realized the need for a more formal set-up to train these kids, especially young adults, in life skills. That’s how TCZ was born. There are a lot of organizations working for early intervention cases, but, sadly, very few that work for young adults.
The name, The Coloured Zebra: Beyond Black and White, indicates how society should look ahead at the disabilities these kids have and focus on a brighter, more colourful aspect of each child’s life. We focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses. They aren’t disabled, but specially abled.
Team Optimist: It’s often said that communication with parents of specially abled children and young adults is tricky. How do you overcome this and make possible ways of sensitizing them?
Prerna Sehgal: Acceptance is the foremost challenge these parents face. A lot of parents are in denial mode. They’re not able to accept their child’s condition and, even if they do, a few of these parents hide the basic behavioural issues. Thus, we usually take a week to assess and understand the child’s behaviour and, accordingly, recommend therapies and courses for him or her. We take one-on-one counselling sessions for parents, where we discuss the child’s issues and also remind them of his or her strengths. We don’t believe in fancy therapies, but suggest basic and simple ways of improving behavioural issues, fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination and communication problems at home.
Team Optimist: Do you think more stress must be laid on life skills for specially abled children and young adults?
Prerna Sehgal: Yes, life skills are extremely important. In fact, not only specially abled kids, but also each and every child should be taught the basic life skills to make them independent. Training kids in daily activities is our forte and we make sure they learn such basic things as folding clothes, filling bottles, attending to guests, cleaning and dusting their rooms and buying grocery. Also, communication and expressiveness are enhanced using theatre as a methodology. These skills can only be improved in groups and not at individual sessions. In the end, we have to make them independent and confident enough to face the real world.
Team Optimist: Why did you choose theatre as a mode of performing arts for specially abled ones?
Prerna Sehgal: Theatre’s a very comprehensive programme. It not only involves acting, but also works on a child’s posture, eye-hand coordination, listening skills, speech, expressiveness, communication and socializing skills. It’s an amalgamation of occupational therapy, speech therapy and behaviour modification. It involves a lot of physical and mental exercises, which enhance cognitive skills, sharpen memory and improve body balance.
Team Optimist: One of the basic aspects of theatre workshops is team bonding. How do specially abled children and young adults bond with each other? Is there any difference with the usual scenario?
Prerna Sehgal: Yes, team bonding is extremely important in all group sessions. It takes about 5-6 classes for them to break the ice with their trainers and peers. Initially, these kids aren’t very interactive and usually keep to themselves, but we make them do a lot of team activities which, eventually, helps them make friends. We give them short break times, where they’re encouraged to share food with each other and this brings about a lot of change in their social behaviour. We also take them out on excursions, which really helps in bonding. Besides, we have a tie-up with an NGO called Gali Pathshala, to make our programme inclusive. Kids from the NGO are buddies to our students and help them gel with other students. It’s a little different from the usual scenario as these kids lack words to express themselves to make friends easily.
Team Optimist: How do you prepare yourself for any new project? Do you require bigger adjustments for an inclusive approach?
Prerna Sehgal: The most important aspect for any project is the curriculum. All our programmes are very need-based. You can’t follow one particular path with these kids, since every day brings a new learning and a new challenge. We follow an inclusive approach to all our programmes. We’ve tied up with an NGO to train their kids along with our specially-abled students. They act as buddies to our students and help them with day-to-day tasks. This way, even the kids from the NGO are sensitized about various disabilities. This method has proved to be very beneficial for both groups.
Team Optimist: What are your plans for The Coloured Zebra over the next five years?
Prerna Sehgal: Currently, we’re training kids in life skills and basic pre-vocational skills to help them take up suitable career options. We plan to start training them in various vocational fields — by vocational we don’t mean making candles and paper bags — and empower them financially. We also absorb a few kids into our organization on a monthly payroll, and they help us carry out daily tasks.