Some experiences are so powerful you have to let them settle a while before you can say anything coherent. And even then, words are inadequate.
The Camphill Community in Bangalore is a residential home for adults with mental handicaps. It's run by a Dutch woman and a South Indian man, along with a staff of seven local people and a host of young volunteers from all over the world.
When I was in Bangalore last month, my friend Shaila and I drove out to visit the place. We arrived to find all the residents on the front verandah of a beautiful, Laurie Baker style house. Each resident had a foreign companion and as we got closer we could see that Saturday was bath day. Everyone looked damp and very well-scrubbed and the volunteers were all busy clipping the residents finger- and toe-nails and cleaning their ears with Q-tips.
I mention this to dispel any notion that I am sentimental or unaware of the realities of taking care of adults with special needs. As we approached I heard the woman who soon introduced herself as Frances telling the volunteers to be sure to sweep well afterwards because, she said, "Nobody likes walking over someone else's toenail clippings."
This practical and matter-of-fact attitude permeated the whole place, as it must whenever there are adult bodies with child-like minds. The most basic of issues, which the rest of us handle ourselves and keep to ourselves, assume enormous importance in most communities of adults with special needs. But here it was background, a fact like other facts, and nothing more.
What was foreground, indeed, the ground of their being, was love. I have been to quite a few residential set-ups for adults with special needs but I have never seen anything like this one. This young man - his name is Gautam - is one example of where I got this idea from. He came and sat down near us as we talked with Frances and he seemed so happy just to be there, to sit close by and simply listen to us talk. Frances included him gently in the conversation, teasing him a bit, as a mother might her own child and then sending him off to do whatever it was he was supposed to be doing then.
I know that the "rights-based approach" is what we all subscribe to in our work and I know that every person with disability has the same rights that anyone else has. But I also know that there is no law that guarantees love and that without love, there is no real life.
I have seen set ups where people with special needs are well cared for (though in most I have seen even that is dubious). But that isn't what most people yearn for. What we all want, and people with disability are no different, is respect, dignity, love. We want to be accepted as we are. We want a home.
Camphill is founded on spiritual principles and the people who work in these communities believe in them deeply. The integrity and inherent worth of every human being is at the centre of what they believe - this was so evident in Bangalore it was hard not to get emotional. Shaila and I felt we were in the presence of something profound and remarkable. Yet, according to Frances, the gift is more often not to the residents but to those who take care of them.
So often, she explained, volunteers come because they want to do something for society. Yet they themselves are broken and in need of care - love affairs gone wrong, a lack of direction in life, a soulless marriage or an deadening career - and their year at Camphill allows them to be healed. By caring for people who are - willingly or not - out of the game of ambition and achievement and success, they are freed to step back and look at their own lives, to see what needs to be let go of and to move forward in a more genuine, truthful way.
I was struck by this photograph of Frances with the dog which they had - of course - rescued from the street. The respect and interest each seems to have for the other is the hallmark of what we saw at Camphill. There is nothing remotely sentimental about it: toenail clippings on the floor, I keep saying to myself. It's about reality, about respect, about dignity. It's about love. I saw it myself.