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If you know Shalini, you must have noticed that she is soft-spoken. But don’t mistake her to be soft-willed. For beyond that tender figure lies a woman of grit and perseverance, of excellence and ambition. And above all, a passion to help children with special needs. Recently Shalini was awarded “Surrey Women in Business award 2018” due to her exemplary achievements in her field of work. As a mother, an immigrant, and a successful business leader, she is an inspiration to many. Today we will share with our readers the story of Shalini Das, Occupational Therapist and Entrepreneur from Vancouver.
BSC: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Shalini
I was born and brought up in Delhi, then moved to Calcutta to pursue my Bachelors in Occupational Therapy. During those years, I realized that pediatrics is my passion. So, I went ahead to complete an M.Sc in Occupational Therapy, specializing in Pediatrics, from Mumbai. More recently, I have completed a Masters in Special Education, focusing on Applied Behavior Analysis from Pennsylvania State University and am a Board Certified Behavior Consultant.
When I was in Calcutta in 1994, I met Sumanta – who became my best friend, and later my partner in life. We married and worked in Singapore for about 7 years before deciding to move to Canada in 2008. We are the proud parents of 2 wonderful boys, Siddharth and Tanay, who are 14 and 7 years old. When I am not working, I love spending time with my family, reading, and volunteering for causes close to my heart.
BSC: Help us understand Occupational Therapy better
I am a Behavior Consultant and Occupational Therapist, and along with Sumanta, started our venture, Symbiosis Pediatric Therapy, in 2008. At work, I see children with all kinds of different challenges. Some of these children may have specific diagnoses, such as Autism, Learning Disability, ADHD etc., while others are referred for simple things like poor handwriting. My work entails assessing the child to find the underlying cause of the challenge and then using strategies to help these children to learn and play alongside their typically developing peers.
BSC: What inspired you to take up occupational therapy as a profession?
I actually stepped into Occupational Therapy (OT) accidentally. I took a course that was an introduction to OT and Physiotherapy. I started talking to my professors about occupational therapy and realized there is such a diverse range of work we could be doing. That really pulled me to the career and it has just grown on from there. I’ve been in this field for twenty years and have no regrets!
BSC: What is ideal: should children with special needs go to special schools or mainstream schools?
According to the Ministry of Education policies, all children with special needs are to be given equal access to learning and an opportunity to follow their educational goals. If we were to segregate children with special needs into stand-alone special schools, we will be defeating the purpose of inclusion. When children with special needs are integrated with mainstream schools, they get an opportunity to socialize with their peers and learn and play alongside them. However, it is important that there is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place for these children. The IEP sets specific goals for each child – it also sets out any adaptations or modifications in the curriculum that need to be made for successful participation in school. Some children may also need the help of Education assistants to help them stay on task and learn in the way that is best suited to them.
When I worked in India, this was one of the issues we struggled with the most. Twenty years ago, children with special needs were not allowed in regular schools. It was disheartening to see how very bright children were sent to special schools just because they had a physical limitation. Things are very different now. With the Right of Children for Free and Compulsory Education, along with the persons with Disability Act, it is encouraging to see more children in inclusive schools in India too.
BSC: Tell us one inspiring story where you helped change a child’s life.
I used to work with this 5-year-old with Autism and major behavioral challenges. He couldn’t speak and had a lot of tantrums and aggression – which was dangerous to himself, as well as others around him. He had been asked to leave 2 preschools for safety reasons when he came to us and I could see the stress that he and his family were going through.
I worked with his school, his family and his Speech Pathologist to set up an alternate program for communication for him.
Once he could “tell” people what he needed, we saw a dramatic decrease in his challenging behaviors. He was happy going to school, started following the teacher’s instructions, made new friends.
He is now in Grade 3 and is one of the friendliest kids in his grade. He is preparing to use his Communication device for a presentation at his grade’s speech competition at school. I couldn’t be more proud of him!
BSC: Tell us a little bit about being a successful businesswoman.
Symbiosis Pediatric Therapy started in 2008 when we moved to Canada, and saw the huge service gap in quality services for children in the Fraser Valley area. We started with 2 Occupational Therapists then, and today have a team of more than 25 Behavior Consultants, Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physiotherapists, Behavior interventionists and support staff. In recognition of the work and the contribution to the community, I recently received the Surrey Women in Business award 2018 (professional).
Over the years, as our team has evolved, so has my role as a businesswoman. I think that as a business owner you have to wear a lot of hats. You are still a clinician with your clients, but you have to be ready to mentor and lead your staff, as well as see their strengths and areas they need to work on. As a leader, you have to be willing to give your staff room to grow in their particular area of interest. I also believe that learning never stops and if my clients need something more, my team and I are always ready to go for professional development. This was one of the reasons why we branched into more services than what we first started with – we wanted to be a place where families could come and be at peace with their choice; where they wouldn’t have to rush around to find other service providers.
Lastly, my personal philosophy is that everything in life needs a balance. Work needs to be balanced well with family life and keeping that in mind, I try to ensure that I have time with my children and husband, prioritizing as needed.
BSC: How do you plan to raise more awareness about children with special needs and promote a more inclusive society?
Public education is a big piece of my work at Symbiosis. We do presentations for parents, PACs at schools, school staff, and many more. We’ve also done workshops for groups such as the Down Syndrome Association, Learning Disability Association, Autism support groups etc. The focus of these sessions can be general awareness about children with special needs, or more specific such as teaching strategies for working with them in schools and recreation centers. I believe that if people were more aware of how to help (or not help) a person, and if they knew all that these children are capable of, our society would definitely be more inclusive.
Team Blank Slate Chronicles thanks Shalini for her words of wisdom and her inspiring story. We are happy to announce she has been also selected as a nominee for Top 25 Best Canadian Immigrant Awards by Royal Bank of Canada. We wish her all the best and hope she wins.
In light of the gruesome crimes that surfaced in India a few weeks ago and also to raise awareness on dealing with children with special needs, we will feature Shalini’s expert opinion on our website. So stay tuned for more!
If you have any questions that you would like us to ask her, feel free to comment, or reach out to us via Facebook. You can also email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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