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“If we ignore youth with disabilities, can India achieve its demographic dividend?”: Meera Shenoy

Meera Shenoy is the Founder C.E.O. of Youth4Jobs and a N.C.P.E.D.P.-Shell Helen Keller Awardee. Her work focuses on market-linked vocational training of young persons with disabilities from rural underprivileged families. The work includes 20 training centres set up exclusively for people with disabilities, which have shown some very impressive results.Her work was featured in Knowledge@Wharton and the Wall Street Journal. She has recently done a study for International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.) on Persons with Disabilities and the Indian Labour Market: Challenges and Opportunities. She talks to Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. about her work and more.

D.N.I.S.: You have been involved with training and placing people with disabilities in the rural areas with very good results. What was different in your approach from the run of the mill Government/N.G.O. employment schemes?

Meera Shenoy: One and half years back I decided to see if I can make a difference in the area of people with disabilities and labour markets, leveraging my experience in South Asia of training non-disabled rural and tribal youth and linking them to quality jobs. I had created a large-scale impact with several innovations for non-disabled youth, being a pioneer in this area. However, the work with persons with disabilities was different and challenging. I found many N.G.O.s were passionate about their work in rehabilitating persons with disabilities but did not understand markets. So the trainings did not lead to jobs. Many N.G.O.s approached companies to hire these youth out of empathy or sympathy. Also, nothing was open source as everyone guards her/his own learnings. Government funding schemes did not emphasise placement linked trainings for persons with disabilities.

We changed the dialogue with companies, sensitising them on the business case. With our track record, M.N.C.s listened. We brought various N.G.O.s together on one platform with the Government, building their capacities and even in year one linking their trained manpower to jobs. This is critical for building scale. Now, systematically, we are closing every gap observed in the value chain of taking rural unemployed youthswith disabilities to quality jobs and life long learning.

D.N.I.S.: What are the biggest challenges that you faced in your work on this particular issue?

Meera Shenoy: Some of the challenges are:

Despite all these challenges, the impact of the work is magical. Boys and girls with disabilities are transformed when they stand on their own feet and send money back home to a family and society which thought they were a burden. This is what keeps me and my team going.

D.N.I.S.: You have recently conducted a study for International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.) on disability and the labour market in India. What were the main findings of the study?

Meera Shenoy: I.L.O. has done good work in the field of disability and labour markets globally like setting up the Global Business and Disability Network. The country strategy suggested by us leverages this work and makes concrete recommendations on where the gaps exist in India for persons with disabilities and labour markets. The study has been shared with industry associations which have given positive feedback. It will be disseminated to a wider audience shortly.

D.N.I.S.: There is a feeling that given I.L.O.s platform, it can do tremendous work at the policy level. Yet, the recommendations of the study mention things like compendium of best practices, a job portal, etc. These are things that disability sector N.G.O.s have done to death. What are your views on this?

Meera Shenoy: N.G.O.s in India have done good work in this sector. I.L.O., having a clear cut country strategy for persons with disabilities and employment, according to me, strengthens the hands of organisations already working in this field . It gives an opportunity to work together on a common platform with a larger vision. Yes, I.L.O. works on policy and there are policy recommendations made.

D.N.I.S.: What do you think is lacking in the policy realm in terms of employment for people with disabilities?

Meera Shenoy: Skilling youth is a mantra now with all policy makers referring to Indias youth bulge. But if we ignore youth with disabilities in India, who are numerically the size of a European country, can India achieve its demographic dividend? The answer is No. So we should lobby for a reserved 5-10 percent fund allocation for market linked skilling of persons with disabilities.