Ability, not disability

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On the occasion of Human Rights Day today, in a virtual ceremony, the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) will felicitate 11 citizens/organisations in India with the NCPEDP Mindtree Helen Keller Awards 2020.

The annual awards recognise individuals and organisations for their efforts in furthering employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Rajkumari Sharma Tankha speaks to the three recipients who belong to Delhi-NCR.

Alok Dixit, Founder, Chhanv, Noida, Uttar Pradesh
Back in 2013, while filing a story on acid attack victims for the newspaper I was working with, I realised that merely filing stories about their plight won’t help much. So, I began a social media campaign, ‘Stop Acid Attacks’, and a blog, both of which garnered good response.  As more burn victims joined my campaign, I set up Chaanv Foundation, and began on-ground activities. I noticed that the victims had a poor self-image, didn’t want to be seen in public, kept their faces covered though it wasn’t their fault.

They were kept hidden inside the house and not allowed to participate even in the family functions. To be able to move out fearlessly, these girls/women had to be financially empowered. And up came our first cafe, Sheroes HangOut, Fatehabad Road, Agra, in 2014. We opened the second outlet at Vipul Khand, Lucknow, in 2016. All the 30 employees at these two cafes are burn victims. We have also started an online venture, https://agiftstory.store/, and have plans to open retail stores managed entirely by burn victims.

Chhanv Foundation continuously reaches out to acid attack survivors, providing them medical,
legal & educational assistance. A total of 150 burn victims are associated with it.

Ranjan Banerjee, General Manager, Crowne Plaza Today New Delhi Okhla

We hired one speech and hearing impaired person three years ago. Today, we have seven specially-abled people in the security and F&B departments. We believe they add a new and diverse perspective to the hospitality business. They put their heart and soul into the work they do. wHaving them in our work force sends out a good message to our guests and the society at large.

The best thing: their attrition rate is zero; unlike ‘normal’ people who quit jobs frequently. It’s because we continuously keep them engaged so they are always learning and satisfied with their job profiles.We also have annual or bi-annual meetings with their families to gauge whether they are happy working with us. It is mandatory for new recruits to be well-versed with sign language so they can communicate with them easily.Training specially-abled is no different from ‘normal’ people.  But I must say they are fast learners and follow SOPs to the T.

Under Banerjee’s leadership, the total strength of people with disabilities at Crowne Plaza Today has gone up to 3.4 per cent of the total workforce as compared to the hotel’s target of 2.5 per cent.

Kartik Sawhney, AI scientist at Microsoft, Co-founder and CEO at I-Stem, Microsoft, I-Stem 

It is challenging for visually-challenged people in India to pursue science. Being one myself, I had faced a number of challenges and I didn’t want others to face all that. So in late 2017, along with eight others, I started a mentorship programme. We organised events, held a hackathon in which people with and without disabilities came together, and hosted webinars, internships and skill training workshops.
Last year, we realised we could do a lot more given our own technical backgrounds, and so registered as a company. We now develop technologies that help people with disabilities.

As of now, we provide two services. The first is on how to convert a document into an accessible format that can be consumed by a visually-challenged and also people with cognitive disabilities like dyslexia.
The second is for the hearing impaired, on how to provide accurate captions. The standard captioning technology like YouTube works on a very generic level and is of no use for domain specific classes e.g. Indian history or biology. So, we developed these highly specific modules. So far, we have worked with 1,200 people with disabilities across India through our technology and our community initiatives.

Sawhney fought and won a court case with CBSE (in 2010) as its rules back then didn’t allow a blind student to pursue science. Later, even as an All-India topper in Special Category in Class 12, he could not study at IIT because of his disability. So, he went to Stanford University and studied computer science, and returned to India to do something for the disabled. Today, CBSE and IITs allow the visually-challenged to pursue various courses.

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