Excerpts from a recent conversation that Citizen Matters had with Shanti Raghavan (SR) and Dipesh Sutariya (DS), the enthusiastic, committed and unassuming co-founders of EnAble India. This 11 year old non-profit, NGO based in Koramangala is famous for its employment assistance services to those with mental, physical, visual and auditory challenges.
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Shanti Raghavan was awarded the best individual working for the cause of persons with disabilities by the ministry of social justice and empowerment on December 3rd on world disability day, this year.
Can you trace your journey from working in the US until now? Did you undergo any formal training to teach the disabled?
DS: Shanti and I were classmates during our engineering in Mumbai and post graduate studies in New Jersey, Untied States. While working in the Information Technology (IT) industry in the US in the mid 1990’s, we heard that Hari, Shanti’s brother (then 17 years old) was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that leads to progressive vision loss.
We helped him undergo mobility training in the US and also exposed him to computer / audio based reading tools and techniques for the visually challenged. Hari also spent time visiting different parts of the US and engaging in various sports and outdoor activities. He returned to Mumbai and completed his B.Com degree and then his MBA in Marketing from the reputed Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. Hari used screen reader software, the Internet and audio cassettes (containing recorded readings of his lessons by his family and friends) to access learning material and complete his courses.
Although he topped his class and attended over seventy job interviews where employers appreciated him, they did not have a suitable position / opening for him. This resulted in us establishing the Employer Outreach programme to educate organizations about employing the disabled and creating an inclusive work environment.
Of course, Hari is now with the Tata group after a senior executive who heard him during a lecture and was very impressed with his story offered him employment.
Shanti and I relocated to Bangalore in 1997 through our respective employers. We set up around eight computers in our house where she used to impart visually challenged students with knowledge of computer basics, Microsoft Office, etc. We registered EnAble India as a trust in 1999 and continued operating it from home. Shanti began working full time with EI from 2004 onwards and I joined in 2008. She has a natural flair for teaching and is a quick learner and thinker while I am better at providing background support and handle relevant functions.
We do not possess any specific qualification in the area of disability training but acquired relevant knowledge whenever possible and necessary. For instance, Shanti’s first exposure to sign language was in 2005 at the Helen Keller Institute in Mumbai where she was invited for conducting a training programme for the visually challenged. She quickly learnt the basics by interacting with the hearing impaired students there.
Where did people learn of EI initially? Did families of visually challenged youth enquire about your skills and experience before joining your classes?
DS: Youth and their families approached us on their own. Awareness spread by “word of mouth”, friends, supporters, et al. Interestingly, one of our earliest students was Shivakumar, from Kerala, a visually impaired young man. He was depressed at not finding after completing his higher school (class XII). His sister who was based in Bangalore had told him about EI. He is now working as a workplace solutions expert at a private firm.
SR: Surprisingly, no one questioned our credentials even when we were new. Perhaps, there was a dearth of individuals / institutions providing the visually challenged with assistance for employment.
How do you find the shift from a corporate to a non-profit entity? What are the primary merits, challenges and observations or lessons learnt?
SR: EI has been documenting its work from the beginning despite starting small. This is one of our strengths. With regard to training, we constantly monitor and evaluate the progress of trainees through regular tests and reviews. In the case of the year long medical transcription course, we set the students weekly performance targets akin to the realities of this industry. This results in occasional drop outs as the trainees are unaccustomed to such highly demanding and stressful work.
DS: EI is not run like a typical non-governmental organization (NGO). The work is very process oriented with scope and need for innovation. Each staff member has independent and total ownership of her / his work.
It is an advantage that Shanti and I worked in the IT sector in managerial and executive roles. Hence, when we approach prospective employers, we can relate to their priorities and objectives. Consequently, we tell them that they should recruit the physically, visually or hearing impaired to meet their business needs rather than Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
Nevertheless, managers in organisations are fairly apprehensive especially when they have not worked with the disabled. We advise such people to hire a few persons which will help them understand the potential of the latter. Also EI’s sensitisation sessions for co-workers of the disabled helps the former realise that there are simple ways of communicating with them. For example, one can speak / read documents aloud to the visually challenged, or write down notes or discussion items for the hearing impaired.
What are EI’s job fairs all about – their frequency, location, criteria, success rate?
DS: EI has been organising these since 2007 about three to four times a year. In 2008, we facilitated one which the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) disability forum sponsored where 69 out of 72 interviewees were selected for employment. We do open them to job seekers whom we meet for the first time but we prefer that they at least undergo EI’s 5 day employability training to maximize their chances of being placed. That is one of the reasons we announce the job fairs in advance. However, any candidate who “walks-in” and secures a job through the job fair can complete EI’s 5 day pre-employment course before commencing his / her professional duties.
Please elaborate on EI’s counselling services for disabled persons and their families and the impact of these.
DS: At EI, we call this mentoring. It is available to the mentally, physically, visually and hearing challenged and their loved ones. We have seen disabled people in despair become hopeful in a few days by observing and exchanging ideas with others like them who are enrolled in one of EI’s courses or are working. When the newcomers hear of the possibilities and opportunities, they become motivated to push themselves.
Does EI provide any seed funding or similar assistance to disabled people interested in entrepreneurship?
DS: While EI has not provided financial assistance directly, we have helped aspiring entrepreneurs obtain support through venture capitalists
Are there any future plans that you want to share?
SR: We are aiming to strengthen our support services for the mentally challenged and those who have recovered from psychosomatic ailments.
How supportive is your family? What are your other interests – do you make time to pursue them?
SR: Our families are very encouraging. EI is like our extended family. We enjoy trekking, swimming and watching movies. I love classical music and play the piano once or twice a month. Although our schedule is hectic, we take time to recharge our batteries. I believe that you cannot give what you do not have!
What inspires you?
SR: A young lady who became visually impaired after an acid attack underwent thirty surgeries and came to me to seek guidance. Her zest for life and the will to succeed inspired me…
Thomson Reuters chose 14 hearing impaired candidates (with the assistance of EI) in a batch of 30 for its Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) division. They found that they were three times more efficient than the rest. These candidates undergo training with the help of an interpreter for sign language.
Shell India hired persons with hearing disabilities for its fuel stations as cashiers and customer service assistants (CSA). The CSA’s capture details of the quantity and type of fuel required by a customer using a white board. The firm has discovered that writing the client’s requirements is an effective way of minimising customer disputes.
BPO division of IBM India and other IT enabled Services (ITeS) have hired technically skilled visually challenged persons.
Café Coffee Day – has hired hearing impaired persons as brewmasters.
Shashikala, totally blind, HR trainee at Aditi Technologies
“The quality of the training is such that it helps you gain perfection in whatever you learn. Initially I feared to touch the PC or experiment but in course of the training I gained confidence and today I can work quite efficiently to the extent of solving minor problems that might arise while working.”
Vijayalakshmi, visually impaired, teaches music online.
This course has given me tremendous confidence and knowledge. In fact, learning computers has drastically changed my career as well as personal life in a very positive way. Now I am teaching carnatic music on-line using software called Skype. I am ever grateful to this organization. I feel I am very fortunate to have highly patient and dedicated instructors like Ms Vidya and others who understood our requirements and taught us accordingly. Over all, truly inspiring!”
Monuj Tamouli, visually impaired candidate from Assam, M.Phil (IIT Bombay), placed as soft skills trainer, Mphasis.
“There are no words to express my feelings about Shanti’s methodical approach and the effort of Enable India family. The meticulous assessment that a candidate is subjected to prior to placement and the support to resolve my issues at the workplace are remarkable. The remote training offered by them in the way of sending me tutorials for computer training and relevant software is appreciable.”
For more information on EI’s course and placement details click here.