x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cost of special-needs care too high, father says

A father of two girls with special needs laments the fact that he cannot afford all of the special care they require.

SHARJAH // VK Thankachan can no longer afford the daily physiotherapy that is vital to strengthen the limbs of his elder daughters, who have cerebral palsy.

"I wish I could give my children everything, and when I had money it was no problem," said Mr Thankachan, who works in an aluminium fabrication company and has lived in the UAE for 15 years.

"But now, when I don't have money, then there is a problem."

Nissi, 15, and Betsy, 13, have learning and speech challenges caused by brain and nervous system disorders. While Nissi wears calipers to straighten her bowed, bent legs, Betsy is confined to a wheelchair, and is dependent on her mother.

Mr Thankachan's wife and daughters moved from Kadambanadu village in southern India five years ago so the family could be together.

But with business flailing, caring for the girls is tough.

Special-needs support groups have called for long-term medical aid or reduced charges not just for Emirati families but also for expatriates whose children are disabled.

Aid workers say the financial strain can break families who have one or more children with disabilities.

"Parents are often lost and scared because once the father finishes paying for therapists, he thinks, 'How will we eat? How will I pay the rent? Then it becomes a burden," said Safia Bari, the founder of Special Needs Future Development Centre.

"Government support would be a blessing. Many of these children get seizures, and medicines are so expensive."

Physiotherapy, required thrice a week, costs up to Dh180 a session, while speech therapy can cost Dh170 an hour. That is on top of fees at the girls' special-needs schools that run from Dh12,000 to Dh45,000 a year.

In the Thankachans' small Sharjah apartment, a fluorescent light shines over plastic chairs. It also shines over a small bed where the girls sleep in the living room.

The affection between the sisters is apparent. Betsy lovingly places her hand on her older sister Nissi. The youngest girl, Eunice, 3, who does not have a disability, rushes between her older sisters toput together a jigsaw puzzle.

When the family heads out for walks, both in India and the UAE, they are accustomed to people pointing and shaking their heads at the older girls.

"Some people say it happened to us because we have committed some sin. Our family also feels ashamed, but we love our daughters," said an emotional Mini Thankachan, the girls' mother.

"Just hearing them laugh, all the tiredness in my body melts, and I'm happy again," she said.

rtalwar@thenational.ae