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“There needs to be clear distinction between an activity centre and a vocational course”: Thilakam Rajendran

The scenario for employment for people with disabilities in the country is abysmal. When it comes to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, it is even worse. Amidst all this, an organisation called A.R.U.N.I.M. has started a unique initiative which is creating employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a profit making mode in a competitive market. A far cry from the so-called charity based employment that was and is the only option for people with such disabilities across the country. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. spoke to Thilakam Rajendran, Managing Director of A.R.U.N.I.M. about this initiative.

D.N.I.S: What is the idea behind A.R.U.N.I.M.?

Thilakam Rajendran: Association for Rehabilitation Under National Trust Initiative of Marketing (A.R.U.N.I.M.) is a start up organisation and a path-breaking initiative of the National Trust, a statutory body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India that works towards inclusion and community participation for persons with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities.

A.R.U.N.I.M. is registered as an N.G.O. under Societies Registration Act 1865 as an independent marketing federation. We are currently working with 196 member organisations pan India to facilitate livelihood and self reliance of persons with disabilities with a special focus on developmental disabilities. The challenge is to increase the earning capacities of producer members with disabilities under sheltered units of N.G.O.s through promotion of market driven products and services.

Our objectives are:

D.N.I.S: What has been A.R.U.N.I.M.s approach to move away from the charity mindset to a more profitable venture?

Thilakam Rajendran: A.R.U.N.I.M. works with both N.G.O.s and entrepreneurs with disability. The transition from rehab sheltered workshop cum production centres to becoming sustainable enterprise models has just begun. The challenge here was to enhance the earning capacities of producers under the sheltered workshops with N.G.O.s. through our work with management, vocational trainers and producers who were not direct entrepreneurs.

Our work so far includes:

D.N.I.S: What is the scenario like for the employment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

Thilakam Rajendran: Open employment has not provided many opportunities to people with developmental disabilities, the only reason being mindsets. So far, micro-enterprises and self employment have created successful placements for people with such disabilities. They have proved to be sincere employees in any enterprise models by being equally contributing and productive. In the self employment model, with support from family or an N.G.O. they have become job creators and have equally contributed to national wealth.

D.N.I.S: Do you feel that the county is still seeped in obsolete vocational training of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that do not impart any skill training and has no future whatsoever?

Thilakam Rajendran: Any kind of vocational training has to lead to a career outcome within a timeframe and should progress to facilitate the skill developed into a well meaning placement of the candidate. Its for the trainers to assess the evolving capacity of the candidate for transition from training to on the job training and then to placement. Hence vocational trainings need to have a business sense and culminate into a career outcome for the candidate.

There are also certain skill trainings which could be pursued by an individual as a hobby or talent which interests them. There needs to be clear distinction between an activity centre and a vocational course.

D.N.I.S: What do you feel is lacking in the policy sphere for employment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

Thilakam Rajendran:

D.N.I.S: What is your vision for A.R.U.N.I.M.? Do you think an initiative like A.R.U.N.I.M. can be scaled up to every town of India?

Thilakam Rajendran: A.R.U.N.I.M. also means a ray of sunshine and it is a hope for many persons with disabilities who can become contributing members of the society with a little support from local bodies. Our vision is to scale up and reach out as far and as fast as possible. We would want to start A.R.U.N.I.M. Design and Incubation Centres in at least 5 regions, which would work on providing a one stop solution for all product development and training in business skills and will become a Facilitation Centre for all entrepreneurs with disabilities, family members, N.G.O.s and anyone who wishes to provide livelihood opportunities to our members. These would be one of its kind centres in the country which will not just provide livelihood but also enable persons with disabilities to become job creators.

Economic empowerment of persons with disabilities will not just bring better quality of life to our members but to the whole ecosystem of that community where our members would be perceived as job providers and not as a burden to society. A.R.U.N.I.M.s vision is to empower them to become active partners in contributing to the growth of the global economy.