Iyyappan Subramaniyan grew up in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India. As a child he saw his brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, ostracized by the entire village. Other parents refused to let their children play with him and the children constantly teased him. Iyyappan’s entire family was ostracized by their community and the village elders openly discriminated against them, believing they were cursed. When Iyyappan’s brother died of medical complications at the age of 13 the entire village rejoiced while his family mourned their loss.
For years, Iyyappan contemplated the fate of children like his brother – children born with intellectual or developmental disabilities in a society that rejected them; children whose parents might abandon them rather than face society’s condemnation. At the age of 21, he decided to take action and dedicate his life to serving these children. After receiving his diploma in multipurpose rehabilitation at one of the best schools in Chennai, and with only $25 USD to his name, Iyyappan rented a single room and began his work by taking in and caring for a single abandoned child.
Of the 468 million children currently living in India, between 2 and 4 million are affected by intellectual and developmental disabilities. Though India adopted the Proclamation on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region in 1992, the reality for the majority of children living with these disabilities remains bleak. Like Iyyappan’s brother, these children face social stigma and have relatively low access to basic medical services and educational opportunities. Many are abandoned or forced to beg for a living and children with disabilities are much more likely to suffer from abuse or violence. Girls with intellectual and developmental disabilities are especially vulnerable to abuse and, in some cases, trafficking.
Without homes where these children can receive specialized care, many will not survive into adulthood. Those that do may be forced out of government supported institutions and forced to fend for themselves when they reach the age of 18. Without life skills or a vocation, these young adults fail to thrive.
When Iyyappan began his work, he recognized the need for individualized rehabilitation services for each child. Each child that arrives at Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust has unique needs based on his or her capabilities and situation. Iyyappan and his staff ensure that each child’s schedule is tailored to help them reach their full potential. This includes appropriate medical care, physical therapy, and education, in addition to food, shelter, and the loving care lavished on each very special child that Sri Arunodayam takes in.
As children grow into their teens, those that may benefit are enrolled in a vocational training program called Prayatna that Iyyappan created to ensure youth are equipped with trades that will allow them to support themselves as adults. The center generates self-sustaining revenue while preparing these young adults to integrate into mainstream society.
Iyyappan also recognizes the specific threats abandoned girls living with disabilities face. While Sri Arunodayam is currently at capacity serving 75 boys and 30 girls (and has to turn away new children every month, just for lack of space), Iyyappan is working to build and operate a new home specifically for girls. With funding and support from World of Children, he can finally move the project forward and expand the organization’s capacity to care for the special needs of these girls.
Since taking in the first child in 2002, Iyyappan and Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust have rescued 320 abandoned children. They have helped 78 of these children reunite with their birth families and 105 currently live at the home.
When Iyyappan began his work, his was the only site in Tamil Nadu providing a home and comprehensive care for children living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As he proved himself and the value of his work, the Indian government began to take notice. His organization, Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust, has been recognized by the state government as an official Reception Unit for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and now serves as a model for similar homes opening around the state. In addition to the children Iyyappan has directly cared for, he has paved the way for many others to receive care from those inspired by his work.
For press inquiries:
World of Children
Watch a short video about Iyyappan: