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ACEing Developmental Disability

Illustration: Nisheel Shetty

“I am different, not less”

Temple Grandin, American Scientist and Animal Behaviourist

This episode of Torchbearer Thursday is dedicated to those individuals who thrive a little differently amongst us; in conversation with Dr. Tatyana Dias, neurobiologist and co-founder of Veruschka Foundation where she lets us into the dreams and lives of individuals afflicted with developmental disabilities. 

Sister Act – Tatyana and Versuscha

Tatyana’s younger sister, Veruschka was born in Mumbai, 1988; a time and place where there wasn’t enough awareness about developmental disabilities. Even though there were early complications with her health it was not until the age of 8 that she was diagnosed with an Autism spectrum disorder. 

Circumstances led Tatyana grow up pretty quickly while she participated as a “protective elder sister” to make the best care available for Veruschka’s well-being. Her fascination with the human mind heightened, as she learnt more about her sister, and she wanted to find a cure for Veruschka’s condition. She pursued her education in life sciences and biochemistry in the UK. She completed her doctoral degree and post doctoral degree from Cambridge University where she studied the Regeneration of the Nervous System. 

Dr. Tatyana knew that the vocational services in India at that time were extremely limited; most schools would cater to individuals up till the ages of 20-23, beyond which the student was homebound. She also observed her parents struggling to avail, not just cognitive behavioral therapy but also the right future planning services and thought it was best to help them move to the UK. However, within a month of doing the paperwork for the relocation, Veruschka’s health worsened and she passed away at the age of 27. 

“It was the darkest year of our lives, it was like the sun was taken away”

Dr. Tatyana Dias

After Veruschka’s demise, Dr. Tatyana’s purpose deflected from trying to find the cure for autism to directly help individuals and families afflicted by developmental disability. She wanted to build a community for them. Tatyana and her husband gave up their respective careers in sciences and advertising to coalesce her father’s vision of the Veruschka Foundation in 2017. 

“Even though I am a neurobiologist, I regained my identity because of the Veruschka foundation.” 

Dr. Tatyana Dias

Early Days

Awareness about developmental disabilities had grown drastically by the year 2016 with the establishment of numerous vocational start-ups and NGOs. After a clear understanding of the gaps in the system and the expectations of the parents through an extensive market research, Veruschka Foundation was established with a mission to give a voice of strength and independence to the differently-abled individuals by offering them the platform to showcase their talent and for the schools and centres to showcase their training. Dr. Tatyana lovingly refers to these talented differently-abled individuals as her “bachoos”.

“They are all adults, or at least above the age of 14 ; strong-willed, confident young people but for me, they are all like my own children. They are very close to my heart and that is why the word ‘bachoos’ comes naturally to me.”  

Dr. Tatyana Dias

The Food Opportunity

“I don’t like to say that one individual is affected more than the other, but yes, some individuals have more challenges than others. We wanted the foundation to showcase the despite there being differences, why are we okay having labels?”

To celebrate this inclusive approach at the Veruschka Foundation, a cookery competition offering cash prizes was introduced with two successful editions where schools and centres participated. It was during these completions that they realised that all the Bachoos were in fact, foodies!  

Taking inspiration from it, the “Growing change” initiative was introduced with a view to teach the bachoos, their families and the schools about the journey of plants from seeds to food. The reason behind that was to inculcate healthy eating lifestyle habits naturally, through play. Dr. Tatyana reflects on her memory of Veruschka; how she loved to help out in the kitchen peeling peas and making sandwiches, how she loved to eat the food that she prepared herself. 

The Culinaris Cookery course was introduced shortly after in 2017 which was featured on the cover page of The Midday.

The Culinaris Cookery Course

Due to the traction gained by all endeavours in the field of cookery, Veruschka Foundation established India’s first Culinary institute for individuals with developmental disabilities in 2019 to help them scale their. entrepreneurial culinary ventures and to secure placements in mainstream employment. In its first year itself, the institute impacted 56 students across Goregaon, Vashi and Thane. Ever since then it has successfully impacted more than a hundred students in person. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, all operations were moved to a digital platform efficiently without halting the students’ development. It has now managed to impact 400 individuals and their families through the power of technology. 

During the course of the pandemic the Bite Better initiative helped girls navigate through a male-dominated culinary industry. The initiative focuses on preparation of gluten free, nutritious products. 

“We went from bringing individuals, families and schools together, to entering a skill developmental organisational space! exclaims Dr. Tatyana. 

rTorchbearer Tatyana Dias in conversation with Deepa Soman

Related Topic: Learning Monday with Chef, Ashok Nageswaran

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