According to the Indian National Sample Survey (NSS-58th Round) carried out between July December 2002, the number of disabled persons in India was 18.49 million .They formed about 1.8 percent of the total estimated population. About 10.63 per cent of the disabled persons suffered from more than one type of following disabilities, (i) mental disability in the form of (a) mental retardation or (b) mental illness, (ii) visual disability in the form of (a) blindness or (b) low vision, (iii) hearing disability, (iv) speech disability, and (v) locomotor disability. While these statistics are dated and would have probably undergone revision, one can only imagine the magnitude of living, caring or being a specially-abled individual or their caregiver in India . Unlike the West the chasm separating the abled and the specially-abled runs wide and deep : lack of infrastructure even basic amenities like access ramps , user friendly doors, wash basins and wash rooms is practically non-existent.
In a country of nearly 1.3 billion people, opportunities be it securing a school, college admission or even a job-are keenly contested. Even among the ‘abled’ the filteration criteria ( a lot of it subjective and unspoken) ranges across a variety of dimensions : eg : the pedigree of the school, caste, age , gender, overall presentation and communication of the candidate , verbal communication skills , the contacts and the financial prowess of the individual concerned etc. Hence for specially abled individuals, no matter how gifted they maybe, even getting an opportunity becomes practically impossible. There are a lot of ‘foras’, organizations, which state an explicit agenda of assisting such individuals, but a lot of the talk is often lost in translation and the results are practically zero.
The first case that comes to mind is that of one of our ex-students MBA who is visually challenged. He was a good student and could articulate his thoughts clearly. The fact that he had managed to compete and complete the rigourous Indian curriculum by studying in a good school and college in Kolkatta was a testament to his grit and his families support. Determined and optimistic, he traveled the distance to Pune in order to pursue and MBA. He managed to complete the two year course which is extremely rigorous despite there being an acute dearth of study material and books that were easily accessible to the visually handicapped. His classmates were practically his eyes, ears and a huge source of moral support. However during the final campus placements our student struggled really hard – just to get an opportunity to interview. The discrimination ( if I may use the forbidden word) was never explicit. His resume would not get shortlisted by the companies visiting the campus. Attempts at connecting with industry representatives even organizations like the CII’s (http://www.cii.in/) cell for the specially-abled failed. Many follow-up emails and phone calls later we realized that in practice, such industry confederations had limited use and functionality.
Similar was the fate of another hearing impaired student’s fate. Finally both had to leave campus when their duration of stay ran out after the program concluded. The condition of children who have a severe disability is extremely difficult. Special schools, are few in number and hence commuting to and fro becomes an expensive affair. Special schools like the Spastics Society of India provide some vocational training programs. However the bind is in being able to find market linkages for marketing the products made by such special needs individuals. While researching this topic, I spoke at length to Mrs Meenakshi Balasubramanium the key force behind G.O.D.S’, of (Group of Disabled- see http://www.enabling-disabled.org/about-us/default.asp ) a Mumbai based organization for specially abled persons. The mission of the organization is to help facilitate a ‘life with self esteem for persons with disabilities’.
According to Ms Meenakshi, it’s very important to be able to market the products made by such special needs persons, because not only does it help to rejeuvenate the facilitating organizations but also provides such individuals with a sense of pride and self satisfaction . G.O.D.S has its own website and uses the ‘word of mouth’ mechanism to reach out to potential customers. However the scale of outreach needs to be bigger and the participation has to come from different stakeholders for it to be a visible difference be it students, corporate, citizen groups. Infact in SCMHRD(www.scmhrd.edu) we just concluded linking a Pune based NGO with one of India’s leading e-commerce sites (Snapdeal.com). While there is no doubt that a presence in the virtual marketplace allows NGOs to reach out to a far wider customer base ( local clients-directly and overseas clients-indirectly), the steep marketing costs that have to be paid to the online marketeer dent the thin spreads that such entities maintain on their products. Moreover while grass root organizations like G.O.D.S are skilled in their specific area of work- they need a lot of marketing inputs and expertise in separating these products and marketing them so that interested customers can identify with the cause and procure them. Otherwise competing in the same space as other mainstream goods and companies can place such organizations at a disadvantage on the price point.
Some solutions that can help such organizations are : 1) active participation by students through internships and live projects. The students can benefit from the ‘hand-on’ experience and the recipient organization can use the burst of talent and creativity coming from a young audience 2) Since ecommerce is booming in India , absorbing the marketing charges recovered from legitimate grassroots organizations as CSR expense ( Companies Act, 2013) can help facilitate the market linkage process and overcome the logistics problem that often plagues most NGOs. Corporates can also help in skilling the participants and help in making them market-ready. 3) Corporate purchases can also help in providing sustainable livelihoods and instilling a sense of pride. 4) Volunteering : through services, time is another way for interested individuals to make a positive difference. It is important to state here that mere cash donations are not enough- since they not only have a limited ‘mileage’ but also defeat the underlying raison d’etre.
My meeting with Komal (a special needs individual) and her mother was a very profound experience. The intricate patterns of emotions that can impact all the concerned family members – cannot be described in words. For words do no justice to the sheer thread of hope and optimism that many like Komal and her mother hang-on to as they traverse their life’s journey. My tribute to Komal and many more unknown Komals and the families concerned:” let there be hope for you are not odd , you are special, you are children of a lesser god…”
Children of a Lesser God..
She struggled to reach out to the railing: her mother watching on her and keeping guard..
She seemed to be trying to find some imaginary succor , as her crutches scraped over the concrete that was cold and hard
Mother and daughter made their way slowly into the crowded room
Where people had gathered to celebrate and enjoy the festivities of the holiday season- enjoying fine wine and food under a canopy covered with the silver glaze of the full moon..
I saw the duo as they sat there in one corner- as the world seemed to swing by
Young women swishing past them in fine garments, while a few older women stopped by their table to stop and say ‘hi’!
The mother, an old frail woman in her late eighties whipped out a white handkerchief bordered with lace
As she patiently wiped the saliva drooling from her daughters face
They sat there in a world that was distant and their own
Seemingly undisturbed by the noise, conversation strings floating in the air broken by the sound of jarring cellphones
First one container she removed from a big shoulder bag and then one more
As a fresh burst of crowd walked in to the room – through the front door
She fed her daughter a smooth mush of what seemed like vegetables and rice
And then as if she seemed to be aware of my gaze, looked straight into my eyes
I tried to look away, feeling embarrassed and guilty of intruding their space
As I had breached on their world through my prying gaze
She smiled at me and looked at me briefly
As she served her daughter some juice after stopping a harassed waiter who was catering to the revelry
I went and sat next to them , and introduced myself
Told them about the connections: common relatives: links via social threads
The mother recalled our brief meeting when we had boarded the bus
And the fact that they had been seated in front of us..
She formally introduced me to her daughter whose name was “Komal”
And we started chatting about their life and world
She told me about Komal’s forty-four year old journey
The affection, love that they shared and her efforts at shaping Komal’s destiny
Komal needed help in walking, eating and swallowing
Thirty two surgeries had made only a marginal difference in her daily living
Her mind was alert, but she could not speak
She loved listening to stories but could not see properly or read
She loved chocolate cake and drinking Sprite
She loved Shrewsberry biscuits – and savoured every bite..
Her mother told me about the kids like Komal, who were part of a group
That was taught to make paper bags, candles, diwali lamps and pack agarbattis and dhoop
She described kids from different backgrounds- the talented few
That had picked up a lot of tips and tricks-although they were so young and new
The goods that they could sell helped to foster livelihoods
It was a not for profit set-up and that way they tried to help as many kids as they could..
For some she said were not so fortunate to get the love and the care
In some cases the families ‘left’ them- for the social pressures associated in dealing with ‘such’ a kid , were too much to bear..
“My son who is ‘normal’ –will not find a bride”
Is what one mother who had left her son in one of the live-in centres – had said and cried
Komal , oblivious to the conversation was in a distant world of her own
Where she appeared to be happy- to be lost in a tranquil space- in her own zone
The corners of eyes crinkled when she smiled to connect with something or someone out there
In a world ,that appeared to be far away from the mortal worries, strife and care
The mother reached out to hold her daughters hand and I could feel the energy that seemed to reverberate through the touch
It was a signal of a sort of mutual assurance, of two weary travelers trudging along , enroute to a never ending journey-the wrinkles on their faces bearing evidence of what they had seen and the eyes weary , after a long search..
A search for hope and a way out of their state that did not seem to be forthcoming..
Her eyes hungry for that ray of sunshine – an end to autumn and the herald of spring
As I was about to leave them – as they were, comfortable in each other’s company
I recalled some of the words spoken- and then I had an epiphany
When she had spoken, the mother had mentioned the bind
Of leaving behind a vulnerable girl child – in a world that was harsh and unkind,
Her words and her eyes had reflected the myriad emotions as she had spoken
Of wishing that Komal would precede her – in the journey towards heaven
For she could not bear to think of what might be the fate of her innocent child after she was gone
Since it was only her that tended to her needs from dusk to dawn
While her words resonated with everything that was logical and true
They had raised a plethora of questions and thoughts- all lined up, as if in a queue
Was the mother’s prayer a correct appeal to the powers that be
Or was it due to the emotions-all entwined so deeply that it did not let her see..
Maybe an alternate path if it did exist at all
That could help to find a solution- a way to move away from the wall
Could there be a better way for hoping for the best
And letting life bloom peacefully-without the mental unrest
Was there a way to invoke the Almighty for a miracle- Praise the lord !
Would a superhero appear, or would there be no savior for such children of a lesser god..
 Dhoop : Is a type of Indian incense used in most Hindu households during prayers.