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Creating a better future for people with disabilities

Palanpur, India – In January this year, Sahyog (which means ‘together’ in Gujarati), a new complex for an institution dedicated to the vocational and educational training of divyang (differently abled) children, was inaugurated in the presence of a large number of diamantaires from different parts of the world.

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Located in the Indian town of Palanpur, the building houses Mamtamandir, run by the Vidyamandir Trust, an institution that provides free education to children with four different types of disabilities – visually impaired, physically handicapped, hearing impaired and mentally challenged – under one roof.

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The complex also includes a newly opened college that offers a Master’s degree in special education, the first institution in the entire state of Gujarat to offer this postgraduate degree. (The Trust has been awarding bachelor’s degrees in special education for a number of years).

While the new building, named ‘A Development Space for Divyangs, an Indo-US partnership’, was made possible by a generous grant from the Gemological Institute of America, the institute itself has been nurtured and built up by donations from various diamond industry families, enabling it to grow from its humble beginnings in the early 1960s.

Ashish K. Mehta, Managing Trustee of the Vidyamandir Trust, said the idea for Mamtamandir took shape after his father, Kantilal “Kanubhai” Chhotalal, who founded the Trust in 1948, attended a lecture by Padmashri Dr Rajendra Vyas in the 1960s.

Vyas was a leading member of the National Association for the Blind and founder of the Blind Men’s Association of India.
“Kanubhai was inspired by the idea that even those who are ‘disabled’ have the ability to contribute to the progress of society if they are properly nurtured and educated,” says Ashish.

Chhotalal started Mamtamandir in 1963 as a school for the visually impaired and over the decades expanded its reach to include those with other types of disabilities.

Driven by a vision to help these children integrate as productive members of society, the Vidyamandir Trust became one of the first institutions in India to implement the vision of integrated education, where differently abled students join mainstream institutions wherever possible, enriching the learning experience for all.

Today, the Trust runs more than 20 different projects under Mamtamandir, all related to vocational and skill training.

The new integrated Sahyog complex, spread over 36,000 square metres, aims to take this intervention to a new level.

It complements some of the older facilities, which are housed in separate and now interconnected buildings on a contiguous site. Mamtamandir currently has an intake of more than 400 differently abled students, both boys and girls, with a wide range of disabilities.

The institution also runs separate hostels for boys and girls, providing free board and lodging to about 300 of its students.Creating an integrated structure to meet their diverse needs was no easy task, said Nishant Mehta, a Mumbai-based architect trained at Columbia University, whose family hails from Palanpur and was associated with the diamond industry.

Nishant led the project through his architectural design firm, Studio NM, and described the journey as a deeply fulfilling exercise.

“We did a lot of research on the principles followed in different types of institutions and studied universal design guidelines and norms. But some of the most valuable input actually came from the practical insights of experienced teachers and curators”.”Sahyog exemplifies our shared vision of a world where help comes from empathy, not sympathy. – Sriram Natarajan, GIA India

In fact, Nishant adds, the local-level interactions with these stakeholders have been so useful that they have been institutionalised in the form of monthly joint tours and discussions.

“The final design has the larger public spaces on the street side of the building and the learning spaces tucked away in the quieter part of the campus, with larger workshops on the ground floor and the classrooms and library on the floors above,” he explained.

Mamtamandir and its latest building, Sahyog, are a striking example of how the diamond industry in India generously contributes to socially significant causes that support long-term development goals.

Sriram Natarajan, Managing Director of GIA India, said, “We at GIA India are honoured to have assisted the Vidyamandir Trust in the construction of Sahyog. It has been a humbling experience to witness the Trust’s commitment to creating a society where people with disabilities are not only accepted, but embraced as equal partners.

“Sahyog is an example of our shared vision of a world where help comes from empathy, not sympathy. Together, we are taking steps towards a more inclusive and compassionate future.

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