Shakuntala Singh, Servant of Fiji
Being a recipient of the prestigious Medal of the Order of Fiji (MOF) is a big deal for Shakuntala Singh. Not because of official recognition for her decades of dedication as a teacher of children with disabilities and special needs in Labasa, or because it drives some egotistical need for gratitude. It is a big deal for this 70-year-old grandmother of six because this raises awareness of the plight of disabled children. “I was surprised when I was contacted and advised of the award. I wondered if I deserved it because I never wanted recognition or publicity. I just did it for the children and for God. It seems there were others who also noticed and nominated me for the award so many years after my retirement.” Shakuntala said she felt honoured standing before Fiji’s President, Major-General (Ret’d) Jioji Konrote and was taken aback by his kind words when he presented her with the medal. President Konrote said he was “most pleased to bestow this long overdue award” to Shakuntala, who was “nominated in recognition for her contribution to the education sector, especially for people with special needs. “In fact Mrs Singh was one of the pioneers of special education for people with special needs in the Northern Division. She taught life skills to hearing impaired children at the Labasa School of Special Education.” Her dedication contributed to enriching their lives with a ‘can do’ attitude that anything in life can be accomplished if you put your heart and mind to it, he said. The Order of Fiji is the highest award in the Fiji honours system which has four divisions. Shakuntala received her medal for service worthy of particular recognition, which in her case was a contribution to special education. Shakuntala reminisced about her experiences during the teaching career that won her the award, and about her personal trials and tribulations. Originally from a rural cane farm in Tavua, Shakuntala was educated at Tavua Primary and Tavua College. She graduated from the then Nasinu Teachers College in 1976 before starting her teaching career at Tavua Primary School. Shakuntala moved to Labasa following her marriage to Kamal Singh. In 1987 she was approached to be part of the Labasa Special
School, at a time when children with disabilities were seen as a burden and inconvenience. “I transferred to what was then known as the Labasa Crippled Children’s School. Things were different then as we were more focused on providing the children with basic skills with which they could earn a living,” she said. “There were kids with different type of disabilities. Some had physical disabilities whilst others could not hear or talk. We also taught children with mental disabilities. We, the teachers, needed to have a wide range of skills to teach kids with such different disabilities. “We did not have expectations that the kids will become doctors, nurses, lawyers or engineers but we definitely wanted them to learn a skill that would help them earn a living and be somewhat self-sufficient. “Over the years, there was a change in the mind-set especially in the community where there was a more focused attempt to provide the children with a range of education and technical skills.” Shakuntala said having a disability should not be seen as hindrance to development and education as some living with a disabilities are intellectually very smart. She spoke of Shiu Karan, a former student with a hearing disability who has now become a part of her family. “When Shiu finished from Labasa special school in 1995 he came to me, unable to get a job. I offered him a place to stay and he has been with us ever since.” “In 2007 I taught him how to drive. I used sign language to teach him the road rules and how to drive a vehicle. When he went to the driving test, I acted as his interpreter. “I was so proud when Shiu got his license on the first attempt.” Shakuntala said Shiu’s examiner was astonished and after the test inquired about how Shiu had manage to learn to drive. The examiner was amazed that Shiu was able to change gears without grinding the gearbox and that he had more awareness on the road then drivers with normal hearing. “Shiu could not hear the sound of the vehicle but was able to correctly change gears based on the vibrations of the car. I empowered him and open up a whole world of opportunities.” Shiu currently works as a mechanic on Shakuntala’s property in Labasa, where he lives and acts as a caretaker. She also reminisced about another student, Milli Akere who lived with her family during her time at the special school in the 1990s. Mili was from a village from the interior. She used to attend classes only once a month and one day Shakuntala asked Milli’s mother, Teresea Akere about why her daughter wasn’t coming to school regularly. Her mother told Shakuntla that Milli got up for school at 4 am and walked two hours on gravel roads to get a bus. By the time she reached Labasa town it was 8 am. Her parents were unable to put her with a family closer to school as others were not able to care for her. “I offered to give her own bedroom as well as food and clothing,” Shakuntala said. Milli is now married with children and lives in Ba. She said unlike the normal education system where there are schools in every locality, when it comes to special education, specialised schools were unfortunately few. “In Fiji parents want to send their kids to school but cannot due to issues with distance. Sending a child with disability to school is a more involved process than sending a normal child. While there are primary schools everywhere, we had only one specialised school for disabled children for the whole of Vanua Levu,” Shakuntala said. “These were the times when we did not have specialised vehicles for wheelchairs that could bring children with physical disabilities to school. Other children could not travel alone due to their disability.” In her personal life, Shakuntala has also had her share of tragedy. Her husband, Kamal Singh has suffered from three major brain haemorrhages since 1988, requiring treatment overseas. “When my husband first suffered a brain haemorrhage he was in a coma for two weeks,” she said. The hardest part was explaining the definition of coma to her seven year old son, Nitin. After raising $20,000, an astronomical sum in the 1980s, Kamal was taken to the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia for treatment. Unfortunately a year later Kamal suffered a major heart attack requiring him to be airlifted to Waikato Hospital, in New Zealand for three bypass surgeries. When he suffered a stroke in August 1995, he was treated at Suva’s Colonial War Memorial Hospital. This time she was advised that overseas treatment would not be feasible. The family was also struggling financially as they had spent all their savings on previous overseas treatments. However, when Kamal suffered another brain hemorrhage in 2015 resulting in him losing his speech, he was airlifted to Australia and admitted to Blacktown Hospital in Sydney’s West, where he suffered another heart attack. After 16 days and he improved enough to be brought back to Fiji. In all this, Shakuntala only casually mentioned the six stents she has in her heart due to several blocked arteries. It seems putting others needs first has had a major impact on her health as well. She has also been the sole bread winner for her family since her husband first fell ill in 1988. “In 2006 I had three stents done in Bartra Hospital in India and in 2015 I had three stents put in at Westmead Hospital in Sydney Australia. “I have always put others’ needs first and have a lot of faith in the Almighty who has given me the strength and the energy to go through these types of testing times.” Shakuntala retired at the age of 60 in 2008 under the government’s compulsory retirement plans. She and her husband are now is based in Australia. “Once I retired, I started to focus on issues at home. My children were also abroad and after retirement, I decided to live. I started to travel around the world.” Shakuntala has three daughters, Doreen and Shaleen and Ashwin and a son, Nitin. All are married and live in Sydney except for Nitin, who is based in Western Australia. Now her interest is to travel back to Fiji and visit the various places she has heard about but never could go due to her work and personal commitments. “I believe there is no place like home. The first place I wish to visit is Taveuni. ” As she continues to travel around Fiji, Shakuntala hopes to promote advocacy for disability issues, a matter that remains close to her heart.