“I have been here for 20 years… I know everything!” exclaims Deepak, without a hint of doubt in his voice. Although it hasn’t quite been twenty years yet, Deepak does know a lot about everything that happens at Friends of Camphill India, a life-sharing residential community for adults with special needs in Bannerghatta, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
This is a place where social therapy is the main driving force for healing and growth, and where relationships between community members ensure a therapeutic approach to special needs. Hand-in-hand with social therapy is Camphill’s endeavour to establish a sustainable lifestyle, share resources and incorporate a fully organic diet. Today, Deepak and 23 other special friends (as the residents are referred to there), have found their home, community, work and friendship, all at the same place.
Founded in 1999 by Indian-Dutch couple Anantha and Francis Aradhya, Camphill India’s approach to working and living together with adults with special needs in the community is unique in India. Provided with an enabling environment and the appropriate care, friends who have been diagnosed with a variety of conditions — including autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s Syndrome and epilepsy — perform their daily chores and work as best they can. Each of them is entrusted with a task that is purely focussed on what they take to naturally; each friend does what they are comfortable doing and improving upon, irrespective of their diagnosed condition. This gives them purpose, pride and satisfaction out of their day-to-day lives.
A structured and consciously rhythmic lifestyle is nurtured and sustained at Camphill India. Days begin early with everyone coming together to chant, stretch and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee before the myriad of activities begin — Ruchita sweeps the leaves off the front porch of their home, Deepak waters the plants in the garden, and Pooja takes her own sweet time picking out her clothes for the day.
Why Camphill-like Interventions Matter
In general, there is a lack of awareness regarding the needs and optimal approaches to caring for people with special needs. Accounting for nearly 2.2% (around 30 million) of India’s population, education, care and livelihood opportunities are still very limited despite a growing number of organizations and initiatives working to cater to this population. Around 45% of people with disabilities are illiterate, while children with autism and cerebral palsy and girls with disabilities are the least likely to be enrolled in schools. Unable to fend for themselves, estimates place the unemployment rate at around 70% for those with special needs who are in the working-age bracket.
Complications arise even before the birth of a child; numerous fetuses suffer side-effects of medication and other environmental and lifestyle factors. From there on, parents find themselves alone in caring for these children in an increasingly competitive and fast-paced world. Sons and daughters born with special needs are suddenly seen as lifelong financial burdens unlike any other. Organisations like Friends of Camphill India offer a holistic solution to many of these pressing issues and could serve as a successful model for future initiatives in this field.
Inspired by Anthroposophy (a philosophy that uses natural means to optimize well-being) and the conviction that every human being is of equal value irrespective of their ability to perform in this world, the focus is on developing abilities and strengths, as opposed to the more common approach of ‘managing’ disabilities and special needs.
Incorporating Sustainability into a Care-Model
Being in the business of ‘recognising needs’, if you will, the special needs of the planet are a deep consideration at Camphill India. By integrating sustainable technology into the community’s infrastructure and adopting a locally-sourced organic diet, Camphill is conscious about its resource-usage while catering to the specific needs of its friends. So, when a bit more money or resources is pumped into offering quality food, it is done so considering the reduced medical expenses the friends would incur because of their improved health.
Most of the food is cooked using biogas produced by the waste-water treatment system that stretches along the length of one of the compound walls. This self-regulating biological system also produces treated wastewater which is then used to irrigate the garden. Over the years, Camphill has saved millions of litres of groundwater in Bannerghatta, all the while cultivating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in the garden. Add to this rainwater harvesting, a few solar panels that serve as power backup and the steady replacement of all polluting chemical detergents with biodegradable alternatives (some of which are produced in the community by the friends), there is lots to emulate from Camphill’s approach to care.
Besides essential tasks such as bathing, cleaning and cooking, a large part of the day at Camphill is spent doing ‘productive’ work in different workshops. There are six of them for now: papermaking, candlemaking, textile work, baking, gardening and working in the community’s kitchen. Apart from this, everyone comes together twice a week to clean up the surroundings and segregate the community’s waste.
Friends of Camphill India is currently in “expansion mode”. The infrastructure for a new farm-based community is taking shape on a five-acre farm located in Alanahalli, 23km from Mysore. The vision for this community is to provide space for adults with special needs to live, work and learn on a farm while leading a sustainable and healthy community life. This new initiative was born out of the recognition that working with one’s hands and being in touch with nature offers immeasurable benefits to people with special needs, and indeed to those working together with them. A small farmhouse for up to 12 people, a community gathering space and a recently donated solar energy system, all stand ready to shelter and power the first group of special friends and volunteers in bringing this vision to life.
The Friends in Camphill India Need Our Help
Working on a tight budget that is fully funded by donations from individuals has been a great challenge and learning for the community over the years. With the expansion, ever-increasing costs, and keeping everybody and every process in good shape, there is a great need for more financial support towards the existing community.
Yet, more than finances, it is volunteers and permanent co-workers that are the greatest need of the hour for the community. Anybody who has cared for people with special needs will tell you that it is a transformative experience. Over the last 2 decades, hundreds of short and long-term volunteers from across the world have had an opportunity to bridge their special friends’ needs with the world around them. One would find it hard not to imbibe sustainable habits and be more aware by living in this community; alongside practicing “ability-positive” social therapy, every day brings new challenges in the form of minimising water consumption, managing waste and power usage, and so on.
The pandemic has exposed Camphill India’s somewhat ‘over-reliance’ on foreigners; most returned to their home countries last March and have been unable to return. So, besides presenting Camphill India’s friends as proof that adults with special needs can lead meaningful and sustainable lives, this article is also an unabashed call to rise to what is an indelibly local challenge. 2.2% of India’s population has special needs, so we find ourselves in a situation that is not going to improve without local solutions. Fortunately, over the last year, Friends of Camphill India saw a small increase in the number of young Indian volunteers who proved critical in keeping things moving for Deepak and his friends. Volunteers and donors can work with or talk to the team at Friends of Camphill India by visiting their website: https://friendsofcamphillindia.in/
All images courtesy Arun Aradhya