At 36, Mahape resident Akhtar Dhale’s struggles and dreams are much like anyone else his age. He spends 1.5 hours getting to his Goregaon office and is yet to figure out a way around his taxes so that he can save enough from his Rs 11,000 monthly salary to buy a home. He meets his wife, Yasmin, who stays in Pune, only on the weekends because he lives in a hostel run by Byculla’s 36-year-old non-profit organisation, the Helen Keller Institute for Deaf and Deafblind. Dhale says it that provided him a home when he was nine, along with the requisite training he needed to get a job.
Akhtar Dhale, 36, is now employed at a Goregaon MNC and travels to and from Mahape on his own. Pic/Varun Singh
Dhale now works as a storekeeper in the Goregaon office of a wealth management multi-national firm, helping the housekeeping staff by providing them necessary equipment from the store. He credits the communication skills he requires to fulfill his duties to mentors at the school.
In fact, having bagged a well paying job in the mainstream workforce makes Dhale a star alumnus of the school. Except, that its teachers wonder if they will be able to mentor any more Dhales.
Last Thursday, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) sealed the institute’s office located at the Byculla Municipal Secondary School, closing doors on Mumbai’s only such institution, barely a month after sending them a notice to vacate the 10 rooms they had been renting since 1979. The move means that 50 students with multiple disabilities have nowhere to go to learn much-needed life skills — skills that allow Dhale, who is deaf and blind, to be independent.
Meeting us outside his hostel at 7 am on a Friday, he walks down the busy Kalyan-Shill Road. He says he joined the firm this May. Devyani Hadkar, a coordinator at the Byculla institute, is our interpretor for the day. Waiting for the 7.30 am BEST bus that he takes, Dhale explains how he builds communication channels at work.
“If someone doesn’t understand sign language, I communicate by writing on their palm.” Born deaf, he also is unable to speak. He joined the institute nearly three decades ago, with elder brother Zamir, who is also deafblind. The brothers were sent here by their Pune-based parents to gain vocational skills.
“Most of our students go to NGOs or are absorbed by us as staffers. However, Dhale is proof that even those who suffer disabilities, can work like anybody else,” says Hadkar, adding that in the 15 years she spent training the Dhales, she ensured that they were given no leeway.
“Why show sympathy? I made them independent enough to be able to lead their own lives. I made them realise their worth.”
Though the dream is distant, Dhale aims to start a grocery business back in Pune. But the recent news of BMC sealing his alma mater has hit him hard. Hadkar says when she informed him about the news, his face fell. “He wondered how others like him would enjoy the opportunities he has had.”