ENGAGE. COLLABORATE. CHANGE. : Equalization of Livelihoods and employment opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, during the pandemic and otherwise: Shanti Raghavan, Founder-Chief Enabler, EnAble India

Unarguably, people with disabilities have experienced more prejudice and discrimination than any other group in history. They face situations ranging from minor embarrassment & inconvenience to relegation of a life of limited experience and reduced social opportunity & civil rights. Moreover, the disability experience resulting from the interaction of health conditions, personal factors, and environmental factors varies greatly across disabilities. For instance, women with disabilities, experience gender discrimination as well as disabling barriers. People from economically poorer backgrounds- rural or urban and those in ethnic minority groups have higher chances of leading a substandard life, a life of tangibly visible hardships, inferiority, and discrimination. The only respite for the disabled and more so, vulnerable disabled is the empathy of the loved ones, the society around, and most importantly the government which is responsible for creating a conducive ecosystem for the disabled to survive and thrive, in its real sense. And it’s not just about empathy, quoting Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong, “disabled or less privileged inspire others with their grit, determination, and passion“. He further believes, if adequately supported, they are the “members of society who can make meaningful contributions“.

The struggle for equal opportunities for disabled people in India, by disability activists and advocates, has been long drawn. The enactment of Rights of Persons With Disabilities Act, 2016 (R.P.W.D.) w.e.f. 30th December 2016 represents a major milestone. The law came into force in India as a result of being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The legislation enacted in India is lauded to be one of the most progressive and comprehensive, among all the 177 countries which signed the Convention. Though it is an admirable step in the direction of providing equal opportunities to PwDs in India, the real success can be measured when the law is enforced with the same rigor and intent with which it was drafted. Also, certain recent amendments proposed in the Act have been discouraged as they are decriminalizing a few offenses committed against PwDs.

As per Census 2011, in India, out of the 121 Cr population, about 2.68 Cr persons are ‘disabled’ which is 2.21% of the total population. However, the advocacy groups of PwDs claim that the number is as high as 10% of the population and as per WHO, it is close to 15% of the population. The Act provided to increase the job opportunities of persons with disabilities by, for instance, increasing the reservation quota from 3% to 4% in government organizations. Around 10 lac people got employment, which is around 13% of the desired number stated in the Act. Already, low literacy & job opportunities and widespread social stigma are making disabled people among the most excluded in India. Children with disabilities are less likely to be in school, disabled adults are more likely to be unemployed, and families with a disabled member are often worse off than the average. And now, with the advent of the economic crisis due to the pandemic, where the able-bodied individuals are being laid off, the situation of PwDs is even more gruesome.

With better education, training and more access to jobs, PwDs can add to the productive workforce of the country and thereby help generate higher economic growth

EnAble India, a non-profit initiative, is reimagining inclusivity for PwDs, with a vision to empower and groom the PwD candidates to become self-advocates. The organization is an aggregator of all possible solutions for PwDs, ensuring them a life of dignity that they deserve through their overall development and providing livelihood training and opportunities. EnAble India started in Karnataka in 1999 and has touched 1,050 locations in 28 states with 229 partner organizations from all across India and visitors have come to Enable India from 27 other countries and is impacting livelihoods across 14 disabilities including visual, intellectual, hearing, physical, autism, cerebral palsy, etc.

Shanti Raghavan, Founder and Chief Enabler at EnAble India has been working for the past two decades to directly enable 50,000 people with disabilities and 220,000 stakeholders through education, rehabilitation, and employment opportunities. 81% of the PwDs employed in urban India and 70% in rural India, are the primary breadwinners for their families. Being a recipient of numerous prestigious awards like Social Changemaker of the year 2019 by The Hindu BusinessLine, US-based Ashoka Fellowship, National Award in 2010 by President of India- Pratibha Patil, and many others, Shanti comes across as one of the most grounded, humble and hilarious human beings. Her undying optimism, infectious energy, and her mantra “I see me in you” are truly the most sought after values for any leader in the development sector who aspires to bring about a change at scale. We at niiti consulting are glad to be in conversation with her, to have more insights from her incredible work, especially during the current pandemic times.

Shanti Raghavan, Founder-Chief Enabler, EnAble India

Walking the talk, as high as 45% of EnAble India’s staff comprises persons with disabilities.. During the COVID-19 times, EnAble India is setting an example for all employers (many of whom seem to be on laying off spree), by ensuring that all their employees have been retained and incentives and promotions have been done in April 2020 on schedule.

The challenge for PwDs seems to have grown during the pandemic, with Work-from-Home becoming the new normal. Shanti however apprised us that PwDs were working from home, even before the COVID situation, it is the persons with deafness who are facing a bigger challenge as there is a communication gap due to Zoom calls and more E-Learning modules to be completed. In a normal scenario, they get a lot of cues from the environment and need visual cues for communication. In the virtual scenario however, they need an interpreter online. Visually impaired persons, on the other hand, can manage the situation better if the screen reader software is working fine. For a disabled person who is also an introvert, inclusion becomes more challenging.

Talking about the self-employment opportunities for the disabled, Shanti posits that EnAble India has been providing self-employment training across 30 districts in India, supported them in establishing petty shops- GARV se centers, small mask-manufacturing units, kiosks selling masks, thus, creating 1,000 plus opportunities across the country.

Of course, just like many other organizations, EnAble India’s training has gone virtual and placements have been happening even in this current scenario. An example which will give hope to many: around 27 persons with intellectual disabilities who were made employable with digitization work last year have been able to earn a stipend even in these tough times thanks to the power of a collective led by Enable India with the Disability NGOs Alliance (DNA) called Mission 1000 where many DNA leaders working together have made it happen.

A training classroom for persons with hearing disability
(Source: The Better India)

When an organisation employs a person with a disability, an organisation has to keep into consideration dual objectives, so that the individual is able to deliver his/her best and feel included. Exemplifying EnAble India’s working model, Shanti advocates frequent communication with all, stock taking with the team more often, being responsive, and thereby increasing the mechanisms of communication. Shanti describes that any person with a disability can work, with the right workplace solution. It begins with task breakdown, quick revaluation to figure out an alternative way how the person will do the same and then, the dynamics will change such that the person can work effectively. Technology also has a great role to play to deal with the changed situation, for example- the captioning option for Zoom and other virtual meetings will make them automatically accessible to the hearing-impaired people.

EnAble India during its work all these years with 700+ private & public sector companies across 27+ sectors being made inclusive, has felt that new-age companies are more receptive to providing jobs to persons with disabilities.. An important metric of success that EnAble India looks at is if the companies and their leaders are becoming self-sufficient in managing PwD based inclusivity. So their aim is not only to get the PwD candidates placed at a company but also ensuring that the company is self-sufficient and is able to get the value they pay for. As per EnAble India, Rs. 1 crore per PwD is saved by PSUs with the inclusion of PwDs as productive employees. As per their Social audit report, 2008-2010, every Re. 1 of investment in a person with disability creates an average economic impact of Rs. 6.55. These are some encouraging numbers and if the leaders are a little more empathetic, we can hope for a truly inclusive environment.

PwD Inclusion initiatives by a few companies (Source: The Economic Times)

Highlighting the developments in the disability ecosystem, Shanti provides certain examples which are promoting inclusivity for PwDs in India. Some of them are- Supreme Court judgment giving the same privileges to PwDs as are available to SC/ST in India, Circular issued requiring at least 5% of PwDs inclusion in Gram Panchayats, hearing-impaired friendly masks manufactured in Tamil Nadu which make lip movement visible, etc. However, she feels concerned that nothing very concrete and structured is happening, which needs to change. The pressing need of the times is empathy from all the stakeholders and influencers of the ecosystem. EnAble India is being instrumental in building the ecosystem to repair the broken value chains through- early intervention education, making the candidates self- reliant to get the jobs and creating/opening up job opportunities for them.

Shanti’s personal experience with the disability of a family member went into the making of EnAble India, as it is today. Her brother started going blind at age of 15 and instead of classic rehabilitation, her family did adventure sports and ‘all sorts of crazy activities’ with him like snorkelling, hot air ballooning, rock climbing, etc. to the extent that her brother felt that he could walk on water.  Post that, being an IT Professional, she started teaching computers to visually-impaired at her residence. To her surprise, other people with disabilities started approaching her for the training. She left her job in 1999 and EnAble India came into being. This reminds us what Helen Keller said- “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” EnAble India, with Shanti’s energy and passion, which now flows through the DNA of the organisation, has come a long way and is certainly leaping towards its vision of ‘Economic independence and dignity for persons with disabilities’.

Author- Vaishali Garg

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