CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Maria Santamaria (known as Sarah), founder of Diya Foundation.

After quitting her corporate job, Maria Santamaria started volunteering at a special school. It was then she realised that this was the field that she wanted to pursue. So, she did her graduation in special education and became a teacher in the same school. Over the years, her ideas about teaching children and adults with disabilities were different from conventional school methods. Along with educating them, she wanted to focus on teaching them skills that would make them employable.

To take that idea forward she started Diya Foundation in 1999. Today Diya provide vocational training, life skills and employment skills to the adults with disabilities.

Small Change: Why does this cause matter to you?

Maria S. Santamaria: When I was teaching differently-abled students, the ones who were graduating were thinking about what next. During that time, one of the parents asked me what her child will do all day after graduating. I didn’t have an answer.

I realised that as special educators we had failed them. We had concentrated to ensuring they get basic education, learn the ABCs and 123s but not the skills that would make them employable. So, I started teaching vocational skills such as cooking and budgeting along with functional academics.

This realisation about the importance of teaching employable skills to intellectually challenged adults planted the seed of starting my own organisation where a transition programme can teach them skills and provide vocational training to ensure they can live an independent life with dignity.

SC: India still has a long way to in implementing inclusive education across the country. Moreover, when we talk about the differently-abled, we focus on education and not on employment. How important is it to ensure adults with disabilities have access to employment opportunities?

MS: Mindsets are changing. Parents are now looking at the differently-abled children as adults, not as eternal children who they will have to look after all their lives. People are slowly realising they can contribute to society but the change is gradual.

In India, even in schools that focus on inclusive education, there are different buildings for differently-abled students so even though all the students get to see each other, there is no interaction. Integration is important to bring about change in mindsets.

Regarding jobs, it’s crucial to ensure that differently-abled students graduate with employable skills. Providing education can’t be successful if they graduate without access to employment opportunities. It’s important to bring that change in mindset, to show them that differently-abled people can contribute to society. For example, when corporate volunteers come to our centre and see students working, they realise that they have talent and they are employable.

As a society, we need to accept them for who they are and look at them as people who can contribute, not as a burden.

SC: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?

MS: First would be Mother Teresa. She showed how you can make a big difference through a small step. Second, it would be my husband. He inspires me and has taught me to forgive and forget. Moreover, Diya Foundation wouldn’t be where it is without him.

And finally, Elizabeth Neuville (director of the Keystone Institute India). I attended her programme on social role valorization some time back. She opened my eyes to the everyday biases we have and how that can devalue people. It was something I never thought about and made me respect people more.

SC: What’s your least and most favourite thing about humanity?

MS: My favourite thing is that we are forgiving and my least favourite is that we can be very critical about everything and judge people very quickly.

Interview by Aisiri Amin

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