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Interview

“The challenge is to provide students with disabilities what they need, when they need it; and as a matter of right”: Rajluxmi Murthy

Indian Institutes of Management (I.I.M.s) are to India what Ivy League is to the U.S., yet the corridors of these coveted places of education still remain difficult and unwelcoming territories for students with disabilities. I.I.M. Bangalore is one of the very few institutes that have proactively started working towards making it a disabled friendly place of study. Office of Disability Services was set up two years ago to facilitate this process. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. talks to Professor Rajluxmi Murthy, who has taken over as the Chairperson, Office of Disability Services recently to find out what motivated this initiative and what others can learn from them.

D.N.I.S.: When and how did the idea to set up an Office of Disability Services occur?

Rajluxmi Murthy: The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, provides three per cent reservation of seats for persons with disabilities in Government funded institutions (including I.I.T.s and I.I.M.s). Indian Institute of Management - Bangalore (I.I.M.B.) has been admitting students with disabilities since then and providing assistance in various ways such as building ramps, making motorised scooters available, allotting extra time in exams, etc. However, these efforts were driven by individuals and were not sufficient. It was evident that we needed a coordinated effort to meet all needs of students with disabilities admitted to I.I.M.B. The Office of Disability Services (O.D.S.) was started at I.I.M. Bangalore in January 2010 to coordinate all requirements of the disabled students.

D.N.I.S.: Tell us about the work of this Office?

Rajluxmi Murthy: I.I.M.B. is perhaps the first institution of higher education in India to have a clearly articulated disability policy and to have an Office of Disability Services (O.D.S.) in place. The office works with students, faculty and administrative staff to ensure that all students with disabilities get as good an educational experience as other students.

The key activities of O.D.S. include:

Examples:

Visual Disability:

Hearing Disability:

Locomotor Disability:

General:

Essentially, O.D.S. serves as a single point contact for addressing any special needs of all our students with disabilities.

D.N.I.S.: What is the institute doing to ensure that the campus and its programmes are disabled friendly?

Rajluxmi Murthy: The process starts with admissions. Admission to an I.I.M. in general is intensely competitive. Only a small fraction (about 1 percent) of students who appear for the Common Admissions Test (C.A.T.) manage to secure a seat in one these I.I.M.s. To ensure that no discrimination happens against persons with disabilities who deserve to be admitted, and no student with disability is deprived of an opportunity to appear for the exam and interview, the admissions office provides an accessible admission form, assistance to fill it and ensures a disabled friendly process during the selection interviews.

Post admission, I.I.M.B. assesses the needs of each enrolled student with disability individually and determines what needs to be done to provide the best possible educational experience for that student. Office of Disability Services arranges such an assessment and acts as a nodal point to ensure that the needs of the student are communicated to every relevant office/department/person of I.I.M.B. and fulfilled appropriately.

The key step is to sensitise all relevant stakeholders to the needs and challenges of students with disabilities through regular interactions. Any discrimination against students with disabilities or rude/insensitive behaviour is taken seriously.

Physical access to all parts of the campus used by students is ensured with the help of ramps, railings, lighting, elevators, and toilets with wheelchair access at key places. All the teaching and reference material is converted to accessible format (J.A.W.S. compatible format) using a Zoomex scanner. The material is proof read before being passed on to the student to ensure there are no errors.

At I.I.M.B. proactive steps are taken to identify career opportunities for students with disabilities, and we seek to influence recruiting organisations to adopt equal opportunity employment policies and practices.

D.N.I.S.: What more would you like this Office to offer?

Rajluxmi Murthy: The challenge is to create a culture that provides students with disabilities what they need, when they need it; and as a matter of right, not as a favour. This involves systemic and behavioral changes. The current academic assessments do not always take into consideration the limitations a disability might pose on a student. For example, it might not be fair to ask a visually impaired student to interpret voluminous data. O.D.S. is trying to facilitate sensitivity to such issues.

The current focus of the office is on Post Graduate Programme (P.G.P.) students and we would like to widen the scope to employees and students of all academic programmes at I.I.M.B.

D.N.I.S.: Has this initiative by I.I.M. Bangalore created a buzz among other I.I.M.s across the country? Are other I.I.M.s planning to set up similar offices?

Rajluxmi Murthy: I.I.M. Bangalore, in cooperation with the Fourth Wave Foundation, organised a national conference titled Enabling Access for Persons with Disabilities to Higher Education and the Workplace: Role of I.C.T. and Assistive Technologies from January 20-21, 2012. The conference aimed at identifying and sharing best practices for enabling access of persons with disabilities at workspaces and educational institutions through I.C.T. and other interventions, and to bring together key players in this field in deliberating on and showcasing solutions and enabling technologies.

The conference was supported by MphasiS, Wipro, Thomson Reuters and Microsoft and had a participation of over 150 representatives and key decision makers from higher education institutions, related Government departments, and corporations, researchers, entrepreneurs and N.G.O.s working on inclusion and diversity agendas, apart from trade bodies and persons with disabilities. There was also deliberation on enabling workplace environment, collaboration, adoption of open standards, and on copyright issues at both policy making and technology adoption levels. Apart from talks by thinkers and doers in the space of disability rights, the event also showcased demos, educational material, and posters on best practices and enabling technologies.

These events helped spread awareness among educational institutions and corporates on the need for setting such facilities. Post this conference, we have seen interest from at least ten educational institutes in setting up similar offices. I.I.M. Bangalore is acting as a guide to these institutes by sharing the best practices and key learnings. I.I.M. Ahmedabad has taken a lead and has already set up an office in this academic year.