Dr. Mithu Alur: Pioneering Inclusive Education and Disability Rights in India

Dr. Mithu Alur stands as a symbol of hope and change in the education sector and disability rights in India. Born and raised in Kolkata, her journey toward becoming one of India’s most respected education leaders began with personal adversity.

After completing her higher education at Miranda House, University of Delhi, Dr. Mithu married Ranjit Chib. Their daughter Malini was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, leading Dr. Mithu into the unexplored territory of advocating for children with disabilities in a country where such provisions were scarce. Faced with lacking suitable educational institutions for Malini’s needs, she embarked on a mission to create change.

In 1968, Dr. Mithu travelled to the Institute of Education (IOE), University of London, to specialise in special education. Armed with knowledge and determination, she returned to India with a vision to establish a school that would cater to the unique requirements of children like Malini.

Her quest for support led her to India’s highest echelons of power. A meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi opened doors, and the endorsement of actress Nargis Dutt gave impetus to her cause. With Dutt’s patronage, The Spastics Society of India (SSI) was founded on 2 October 1972 with a mission to provide education and support for children with cerebral palsy.

Dr. Mithu’s pioneering efforts bore fruit when she inaugurated the first-ever special school in India for children with cerebral palsy, the “Centre for Special Education,” on the same date in 1973. Initially catering to just three children, including her daughter Malini, the institution became a comprehensive centre offering education and treatment under one roof.

Dr. Mithu admits that SSI’s substantial support was instrumental, particularly from influential individuals. Notably, many supporters hailed from prestigious backgrounds, such as young civil servants who were alumni of Dr. Alur’s own alma mater, Miranda House. Others held positions of prominence, enabling them to advocate effectively for the cause. Among them were Radhika and Prannoy Roy, founders of NDTV; Lotika Sarkar, a feminist, lawyer, and educator; Anita and Arun Shourie, recipients of the Padma Bhushan award (whose son Aditya has cerebral palsy); and Dr. Mithu’s sister, Mita Nundy, who spearheaded the society’s efforts and frequently addressed conferences in India and abroad on the rights of the differently-abled.

The scope of Dr. Mithu’s work extended far beyond the confines of the classroom. Recognising the need for systemic change, she advocated for policy reforms at the highest levels of government. Her seminal research, encapsulated in her 1998 PhD thesis, “Invisible Children—A Study of Policy Exclusion,” shed light on the widespread neglect and exclusion faced by people with disabilities in government programs and services. This work not only informed policy but also ignited a nationwide conversation about the rights of disabled individuals.

The impact of Dr. Mithu’s advocacy extended beyond India’s borders, with her writings and research garnering international attention. Her relentless efforts to amplify the voices of the marginalised found platforms in esteemed publications such as The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Statesman. Regular appearances on news channels, notably NDTV, further amplified her message of inclusion and equity.

In her later years, Dr. Mithu shifted her focus toward inclusive education, championing the cause of Education for All (EFA) in marginalised communities. Her collaboration with UNICEF culminated in a groundbreaking longitudinal research project in the slums of Mumbai. The project demonstrated that inclusive education is possible and essential for all children, regardless of disability or socio-economic status.

Today, Dr. Mithu Alur’s legacy lives on through ADAPT – Able Disable All People Together, formerly known as The Spastics Society of India. Her tireless advocacy, pioneering research, and unwavering commitment to inclusivity continue to inspire generations of educators, activists, and policymakers striving to create a more equitable world for people with disabilities.

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