Shedding the stigma

Sep 16, 2011, 15:04 IST | Sudeshna Chowdhury

With ATMs for the blind, visually challenged massage therapists, a call centre that employs people with special needs -- Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) takes on a whole new meaning

With ATMs for the blind, visually challenged massage therapists, a call centre that employs people with special needs -- Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) takes on a whole new meaning 

Not seeing is believing seemed to be the order of the day at 'Antarchakshu-The Eye Within', an event organised by the Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai on September 9 and 10. During the two-day workshop participants were made to go through various simulation exercises in order to make them aware of problems faced by the visually impaired in everyday life. The activity zone at the workshop was divided into a shopping area, a small football ground, a movie theatre and an ATM centre. At the shopping zone, participants were asked to move around in a wheelchair. They were then blindfolded and made to walk on an uneven surface. Participants also got an opportunity to play blind football.

Awareness: Participants were blindfolded at a workshop organised by
the Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) at
St.Xavier's College. PICS/BIPIN KOKATE

At work: Employees at EuroAble, India's first domestic call centre,
manned and operated entirely by people with special needs.
PIC/ Sayed Sameer Abedi

Task: Participants playing blind football at 'Antarchakshu-The Eye
Within', an event organised at St.Xavier's College

Healing Touch: Visually impaired people working at a spa in Goregaon (E)

Workshop: Dr Sam Taraporevala, Director of XRCVC shows how
accessible ATMs can help blind people

Later, through a short movie, participants got a first hand experience of Audio Description -- a technology widely used in the western countries to make visual medium accessible to the blind.

The event also showcased accessible ATMs (An accessible ATM allows the complete transaction process to be independently carried out by the visually impaired. This requires that the audio prompts not only read aloud screen messages but provide a complete directional guidance to a customer). This initiative was launched by XRCVC in association with NCR Corporation. Dr Sam Taraporevala, Director of XRCVC said, "Inspite of a RBI circular, which states that all banking services including ATM cards need to be offered to visually impaired clients without discrimination, there has hardly been any effort from the sector to have accessible ATMs at their outlets. Most of the banks complain that accessible ATMs are expensive. But, if such a project is taken up on a large scale, then the cost will come down. The will is what is required."

The purpose of the workshop, said Karishma Shelar, student co-ordinator, XRCVC, "was to sensitise people and make them aware about problems faced by blind people. So that, next time they reach out to those who do not have vision." For Swati Yadav (30), a participant from Wadala, the whole workshop was an "eye opener". She said, "I had so much difficulty finishing the tasks. Now I understand what visually impaired people go through."

Not just awareness programmes, various corporates too are also coming forward to reach out to differently-abled people. For example -- EuroAble, India's first  domestic call centre, manned and operated entirely by people with special needs was started by Eureka Forbes in association with National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped (NASEOH) in Chembur in April, 2011. "It has been six months now and my life has radically changed. I feel more accepted by society," said Ambar Ramdive (33), who is part of a 70-member team (61 men and 9 women) at EuroAble. Armed with a newfound confidence, Ambar looks forward to go to work everyday. Ambar, who earlier used to work for a publishing house, has cerebral palsy and his right side is paralysed. "Ambar wouldn't get a job because of his disability," said Jyotsna Ramdive, Ambar's mother. But, in April Ambar landed a job as a call centre employee at EuroAble.

Savita Rupesh Ahire (25), who was affected by polio, too has a similar story. Without a job, things became difficult for Savita. Her husband too is disabled. "I had applied for jobs but, was rejected everywhere. But this time I got lucky," she said.

When asked about her salary, she said, "I am getting a salary of Rs 7,000, which is more than enough for me." Seema Vyas, who was also affected by polio, says that she wants to continue working here for the rest of her life. "The very first question that came to my mind, when I entered this office was, how come people like us are here but now I have the answer, there is a right place for everybody and this is our place," said Vyas.

Many believe that, apart from being just a source of income; this job will also help them to hone their skills.

Explained Sadhna Jagdale(22), who was also affected by polio at a very young age, "I like to sing and paint.

Whenever I have some free time between my work I would try and improve on that. I will also get a chance to take part in a lot of competitions in the office itself."

"Within a period of six months, their whole demeanour has changed. The employees are now capable of handling any client. Infact, we would soon make them team leaders and entrust them with more responsibilities.
We are looking at 150 people to run this call centre," said Vinath Hegde, head, Customer Relation Management (CRM). "Such an initiative will help them realise their potential," said Hansa B Mehta, President, NASEOH.

Walls at the call centre are adorned with paintings and pictures of celebrities who overcame their challenges and excelled in their respective fields . Be it Hellen Keller or Rick Allen, the pictures have been put to remind employees of the tremendous power that lies within them, said a trainer. Said Shapoor Mistry, Chairman, Eureka Forbes, "The walkways are wider so that people can move around in wheelchairs. This place is spacious and it can easily accommodate 200 people but we will keep it 140. "The employees work in three shifts and bus service has been provided for there convenience,"  for said Hegde.

Trainers, who trained these employees, acknowledge the fact that it was indeed a challenge to train them. "The biggest hurdle was, they had lacked confidence. Most of them knew just basic English. There were counselling sessions, voice training classes, language classes, etcetera to make them believe in themselves," explained Hegde.

Concurred Ranjith Kumaran who was involved in the training process, "Most of them had never interacted in English, so they were not confident. But, they are extremely talented and completely dedicated towards their work."

Many corporates, as part of their CSR programme are taking initiatives to employ people who are visually challenged at their workplace.

Hence, do not be surprised if you walk into a spa and see visually impaired people working as massage therapists and reflexologists.

One such spa, which was inaugurated on September 3 on Goregaon (E) is run by Trinayani, a Non-governmental organisation  (NGO) based in Mumbai. "It is an attempt by us to create employment and equal opportunities for people with disability. All the therapists are trained for six months at the National Association For The Blind, Mahalaxmi," said Ritika Sahni, Founder Trustee, Trinayani.

Similarly My Foot Reflexology, a company, which focuses on holistic therapy, too employs blind people across various centres all over the city. In an email interview, Keval C. Sheth, assistant operation manager of the company said, "It is an attempt to uplift the special people not with sympathy and adhoc gestures but by providing them an opportunity to build their lives." When asked about customer response, Sheth said, "There are always two sides of a coin. We have had customers who felt it a bit odd when they actually came to know that we have visually impaired or physically challenged therapists. And on the other side we have had customers who actually supported our ideology of having such special people."

People are being pleasantly surprised with the presence of differently- abled workers, who are manning the billing counters, brewing aromatic coffee, blending mocktails, heating up the food and even waiting tables at popular cafes and restaurants across the country. KFC, Cafe Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza, apart from Costa Coffee, are a few such places where speech- and hearing-impaired people are being employed as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). "We have been hiring specially-abled people for the past two years, but the trend has been noticed more over the past six months. It is wonderful that people are talking about it and consumers have been appreciating it," Santhosh Unni, CEO, Costa Coffee. Customers simply have to point out the orders on the menu when it comes to the hearing- and speech-impaired waiters.

 Some popular eateries are also doing it. Yum! Restaurant India, which runs eating joints like KFC and Pizza Hut, believe in giving opportunities to such people. "One of our principles- believe in all people - underscores the importance of actively seeking diversity, believing everyone has the potential to make a difference, and coaching and supporting every individual," said Binoo Wadhwa, director, HR, Yum! Restaurants India.

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