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The Game Changers: Leading by Example

Every year the N.C.P.E.D.P. – Shell Helen Keller Awards brings out wonderful examples of courage and perseverance that has paid off, in ways big and small. It shows that there are plenty of role model individuals and organisations to inspire others to work towards promoting employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The need of the hour is to replicate these best practices. Shilpi Ganguly of D.N.I.S. highlights some of the work of the Awardees this year and how society, bureaucrats, top honchos of the corporate sector and the political class as a whole need to go several steps further to bring about widespread changes.

“I have always tried not to fall in line, but to make my own identity,” said Ashwin Karthik, one of the Awardees at the 13th N.C.P.E.D.P. – Shell Helen Keller Awards this year. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is a belief that underlines the lives of all other Awardees who have won this year, and indeed, in the previous years as well. The self-determination and the zeal to break the barriers put by society and prove themselves to be equal to, if not a cut above the rest, has enabled the winners to carve an identity for themselves.

However, going beyond the Awards, the implications of the work being done by them have a ripple effect, thus making a difference in the lives of many others. The disability movement, which is increasingly becoming more visible in the country, has gained strength from the work of role model individuals and organisations committed to achieving economic equality for persons with disabilities, making possible a life of dignity and independence for them.

According to Census 2011, India is a country of 1.2 billion people. Though the Census 2011 data on disability has not been announced yet, if we were to go by the United Nations (U.N.) estimate that 10 percent of the population has a disability, there are about 120 million people with disabilities in India. In the teeming multitude, the number of persons with disabilities gainfully employed is abysmally low. A lone survey of its kind carried out by N.C.P.E.D.P. more than a decade ago to find out about the employment practices of the corporate sector, corroborates that fact. The survey revealed the percentage of disabled employees in the public sector to be 0.5 percent; in the private sector 0.2 percent and in the multi-national companies 0.05 percent!

Though the figures might have improved a little since then, owing to the strengthening disability movement, it is still an assumption. There hardly seems to have been a significant change in the scenario. Disability rights activists and experts lament the lack of infrastructure and long-term policy vis-a-vis employment for persons with disabilities. Frequently companies through Corporate Social Responsibility, do lip service in the name of ‘inclusivity’.

In this kind of a backdrop, companies such as Aegis, with their detailed framework of policy and infrastructure for employing persons with disabilities, stand out. Aegis, which presently employs 627 persons with disabilities – constituting 1 percent of their total global workforce – is committed to enhancing this figure to 1.5 percent this year. Of the total disabled employees globally, as many as 314 are from India!

What is even more encouraging though, is the fact that there is a sustained effort from the top management of the company to create an environment that is truly disabled-friendly. A very common example of inherent discrimination within companies in the private sector is lower wages for disabled employees. Not so with Aegis. As part of a six dimensional Diversity Model, the organisation has designed and implemented certain initiatives that act as enablers towards enhancing the cause of employment of persons with disabilities. Equal pay for all disabled employees carrying out similar jobs as that of non-disabled employees is one of the measures adopted by them. Other measures include equal employment opportunity policy; accessible and convenient facilities that specially cater to the needs of disabled employees; target based commitment; partnering with N.G.O.s and state employment exchanges etc.

Another example of such good practices is Pointec Pens. Inspired by a presentation by Niranjan Khatri, who heads the Sustainable Development Initiative of I.T.C. Hotels, another N.C.P.E.D.P. – Shell Helen Keller Awardee, Pointec initiated the process of creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities in June 2011. Within a very short period of time, the organisation has come a long way. At present they have 11 disabled employees working with them, out of a total strength of 400, which is nearly 3 percent of their workforce – a figure which is very impressive. Their target is to strengthen this figure to 15 percent of total employees by December 2013.

Moreover, they have gone a step further and taken the work to the homes of persons with disabilities. Being a manufacturing company of pens, gel pens and mechanical pencils, their products lend the scope of assembling and sub-assembling work at home. What this move does is that it creates work opportunities for caregivers of persons with disabilities too!

Be it at a personal or at an organisational level, all the Awardees have led by example. A case in point is that of Thilakam Rajendran, working in an area considered to be difficult even within the disability sector – empowering people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. As Managing Director of Association for Rehabilitation under National Trust Initiative of Marketing (A.R.U.N.I.M.), the thrust of her work has been to create employment opportunities which are inclusive and make business sense. Spearheading the concept of ‘Shop in Shop’, she has introduced products made by persons with disabilities to leading brands like Fab India, Good Earth, Cottage Industry, Mother Earth etc, besides entering into partnerships with Industry Associations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (F.I.C.C.I.), Confederation of Indian Industry (C.I.I.), Export Promotion Council, to name a few. Under Rajendran’s leadership, A.R.U.N.I.M.’s sales turnover has increased ten times from approximately three lakh in 2008 to 30 lakh in 2010!

As always, individual stories of perseverance and success lend warmth to the initiative of recognising role models. Ashwin Karthik, a Computer Engineer, holds the uncommon distinction of being the first quadriplegic student with cerebral palsy to become an engineering graduate in India! Challenges that might have left others struggling have only egged him to strive for more than what life has thrown at him. Amply demonstrating that disability does not stop one from being employable, he is presently working with MphasiS as Delivery Software Engineer. An embodiment of a truly multifaceted human being, he gives form to his feelings and beliefs through poignant poetry written in different languages.

Success, they say, is not a measure of how high you rise, but how far you bounce back after taking a fall. It is not easy by any means to not only get back on your own two feet, but also to expend time and effort to open windows for others, after losing your vision at the age of 18. Yet, that is exactly what Nilesh Singhal, Deputy Manager at State Bank of India’s Bhopal headquarters, has done since he lost his sight 18 years ago. In a case of blatant discrimination, the doors of the Madhya Pradesh Civil Services were closed to him even though he cleared both preliminary and the main examination three years in a row. In order to ensure that others don’t have to face the same plight, Nilesh filed a petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which ruled in his favour and directed that persons with disabilities too are equal citizens of the country and have as much share in its resources as any other citizen.

The third Awardee in the persons with disability category of the N.C.P.E.D.P. – Shell Helen Keller Awards this year, Pradeep Raj, is an accomplished table tennis player. Through his singular persistence and determination, he ensured that the Government of India sits up and notices the widespread corruption in the field of disability sports – an area so nascent in India that neither the Government nor the disability sector has paid much heed to it. Pradeep is currently involved in the advocacy for participation of deserving sportspersons with disabilities in the London Paralympics 2012.

Though persons with disabilities have a long way to go before they become truly empowered, those in the urban areas have nevertheless seen some improvements in their lives. But how much of this trickles down to rural India? Meera Shenoy, Founder C.E.O. of Youth4Jobs, which focuses on market-linked vocational training of young persons with disabilities from rural underprivileged families, laments the lack of education and training in rural areas. Her work in training rural men and women with disabilities for market driven jobs and with companies to persuade them to employ them, makes her one of the deserving Awardees this year.

Another role model story is that of Niranjan Khatri, General Manager of WelcomEnviron Initiatives, I.T.C. Welcomgroup, who has been instrumental in making I.T.C. one of the disabled-friendly companies of the country.

I.T.C. Maurya, an Awardee in the Role Model Companies category, has chosen to employ a sizeable number of people with disabilities. Out of the total of 1079 employees, 22 are people with disabilities. This is the highest in any five-star hotel in Delhi.

Within two short years of being set up, the Deaf Enabled Foundation (D.E.F.) has been able to reach out to various stakeholders and is working for the all round development of the deaf community in India. D.E.F. is not only helping to equip deaf people with different skills and abilities, but also helping the youth who have completed these courses to find jobs, as well as providing orientation for Human Resources personnel of companies that are willing to employ deaf persons. They are one of the 5 organisations which were awarded this year.

Muskaan (Parents Association for the Welfare of the Children with Mental Handicap), is yet another organisation that has proved that persons with intellectual disabilities can learn work-related and many other life skills and be productive members of the society. The Muskaan Work Centre, started in 1995, has been a successful experiment. Empowerment, rather than charity has been the guiding philosophy of Muskaan and it has been striving to build an equitable society which recognises diversity and respects the rights of all people irrespective of their abilities.

This year’s Awards have once again proved that there is no dearth of role models when it comes to employment of persons with disabilities. There is no need to re-invent the wheel, but it requires a lot of greasing. Role model organisations and individuals, many of whom are activists in their own right, are aplenty and doing their bit for the cause. It is now up to the society, bureaucrats, decision makers, top honchos of the corporate sector and the political class as a whole to take these inspirations and convert them into firm policies that will ensure equal opportunities for the millions of people with disabilities in the country.