How a mother from Sri Lanka is helping Tamil-Canadians cope with disabilities

Vijitha Tharmalingam co-founded the ATI Foundation, a Toronto organization that provides support for Tamil families with children who have disabilities.

ATI Foundation provides support for Tamil families with members who have disabilities

Vijitha Tharmalingam, right, standing with her daughter Meera Tharmalingam, co-founded ATI Foundation to help support Tamil families who care for people with disabilities. (ATI Foundation )

When Vijitha Tharmalingam brought her family to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1992, she found herself in the same predicament as many immigrants — encountering problems with accessing resources and services in her mother tongue.

But because her daughter Meera had disabilities, she found settling in this country even harder. 

Inspired by her own difficulties, and the experience of other people in the Tamil community, she co-founded ATI Foundation. ATI stands for Annai Thantha Illam, which is a Tamil phrase that translates to "a home provided by the mother."

Vijitha Tharmalingam, right, with her two sons and her daughter Meera in Sri Lanka.

ATI caters to the needs of people with various disabilities and aims to erase the stigma they face while providing support in Tamil and English.

"We wanted to form an organization that supports both the individuals with disabilities and also supports their caregivers," said Arani Tharmalingam, vice-president of ATI Foundation and Vijitha's youngest daughter.

Lots of barriers along the way

At the height of the civil conflict in Sri Lanka in 1987, the Tharmalingams suddenly found their home was in the middle of a war zone. But the only way they could escape the fighting was to cram everyone — Vijitha, her husband and their two boys — onto a single bike. As they desperately tried to pedal away, Vijitha fell on the handlebars, hitting her stomach.

Tharmalingam was pregnant with Meera at the time, and after the little girl was born, it became clear she had severe brain damage.

According to Arani Tharmalingam, Tamils in Sri Lanka during the 1990's often looked down upon parents who had a child with a disability.

"A lot of my father and my mother's immediate relatives told her to actually abandon the baby or just give Meera to an orphanage." 

ATI offers people with disabilities opportunities to go on field trips. (ATI Foundation )

But Tharmalingam wanted a better life for her daughter — who is now 30 with developmental age between four or five — and she came to Canada to find it.

A lot of my father and my mother's immediate relatives told her to actually abandon the baby or just give away Meera to an orphanage.- Arani Tharmalingam, vice-president of ATI Foundation

In spite of the language barrier, Vijitha Tharmalingam found ways to help her daughter —— by joining community groups and finding other Tamil families who had children with disabilities.

She started ATI in 2014 with friends Selvamanikam Bhrapakaran, and Nimalan Balachandran in an effort to share her experiences with other parents who have children with disabilities and use their own culture and language to help break down barriers.

Programs at ATI include recreational activities, strengthening literacy skills, pre-employment training, social living skills, and more. ATI has occupational therapists, program coordinators, and personal support workers to help clients.

Clients at ATI Foundation engage in programming from music activities to pre-employment training. (ATI Foundation )

"ATI Foundations is kind of like a resource centre, and a place where parents can share knowledge and their experiences," says Arani Tharmalingam. She says her mother's goal is to help parents relieve stress as well.

The organization focuses on individuals over the age of 21 because that's the age when they are no longer able to attend public school.

Cultural relevance helps with understanding 

Gajani Baskaranathan, a social worker at ATI, says the foundation provides an important service to families and helps them see potential in people with disabilities.

"[Parents] just listen to what other people have to say and they just consider that. They don't understand that there's another perspective. Having a program that shows them that 'my kid can do this and my kid can do that' is really important because the parents understand that their kid can do so much," Baskaranathan told CBC Toronto.

Programming at ATI Foundation includes enhancing communication and fine motor skills. (ATI Foundation )

Baskaranathan says ATI programs try to reach children by speaking to them in their own language and emphasizing Tamil culture. 

"A lot of kids who are usually at home ... usually watch Tamil movies, know Tamil songs. They have a lot of exposure to our cultural background and incorporating that into our learning helps them to understand better. They feel more comfortable. We see a lot more potential in that as well," says Baskaranathan.

Impact on the community

The organization started with three to four clients. Now, more than 30 people take part in the programming.

Jegatha Suseelan is one of them. Her son, Arjunan, has autism and Suseelan and her husband have had a hard time caring for him.

Since joining one of ATI's summer camps, she says the impact on her life has been significant, and she feels that, thanks to the foundation's programs, her son will not be without his cultural identity, even with his disability. 

"I can feel his happiness."