These do-gooders are special
What do a former French teacher, an MBA and a systems engineer have in common? A desire to reach out to the often neglected sections of society, such as children with learning disabilities as well as others from poorer backgrounds, and incorporate them into the mainstream prompted three crusaders to set up organisations solely for this purpose. Rinky Kumar talks to these unheralded heroes to find out what fuels their passion
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it - Helen Keller
Pressing schedules and a materialistic attitude have dominated our lives to such an extent that we never pause to think about the differently abled. Specially about people who aren’t as blessed as we are but are far more proficient and confident than us or kids with learning disabilities from underprivileged backgrounds who are blooming with innocence but don’t have the means to overcome their shortcomings. But three Mumbaiites have taken upon themselves to make a difference and incorporate these people in mainstream society.
Education, the key to success
Mimaansa is the only non-government organisation in Thane engaged in addressing the issue of learning disability in the less-privileged municipal schools. A learning difficulty is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s capacity to receive, interpret, process and reproduce information. Operating in two municipal schools of Thane (the Savarkar Nagar School No 120 and the Kisan Nagar School No 23), it identifies, diagnoses and remediates 60 students.
It propounds the model called Response to Intervention (RTI) that promotes early intervention for diagnosing learning disabilities and basically prevents the ‘wait to fail’ model of education. RTI has resulted in the usage of assistive technology like tablets for remediation. Set up in January 2010 by Pooja Joshi, the children get an opportunity to learn new things by touching the tablet’s screen, feeling the pages and using their visual, auditory and kinesthetic senses.
Joshi, a graduate in French literature, initially started off by teaching the foreign language to students at private schools. However, she says, “There was a special school right across my house and I was curious about these children. They seemed normal but I would ask myself why were they termed as ‘special’?” It was after her stints as a volunteer and later as a counsellor at Masoom, a non-government organisation that works with night schools in Mumbai that she realised the hardships that such children had to face. This prompted her to do a Master Practitioner course in Neuro Linguistic Programming and obtain a Masters degree in Clinical Hypnotherapy.
She started off by doing a pilot research project in private schools and followed it up with talks with other organisations that work with kids with learning disabilities, and special educators. She says, “After several discussions and conducting a research study, we learnt that underprivileged kids are neglected by the society at large and don’t have resources to overcome their drawbacks.” That’s when she thought of working towards educating kids with learning disabilities from municipal schools.
She approached the education department of the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) with her project and earned their consent. The 26-year-old and her team of two special educators, a counsellor and a programme co-ordinator began sensitising the teachers to motivate the students to leave their class and attend a 40-minute remedial session every day. Joshi explains, “We also adopt conventional play way methods using sand, pebbles and mud to make the kids understand tables. Our whole idea is not to teach students but instill the method in them.”
Joshi is happy with the milestones that her NGO has achieved and says that she could make this journey with the backing of two organisations — Unltd India and Atma, that support NGOs. However, she admits that she still has miles to go. “Our biggest challenge was to convince parents that their children can have learning disabilities. We offer kids the remedial measures at no cost. But even today funding is a huge problem for us. However, in the long run, we want to partner with other NGOs, start supporting their remedial measures and gradually expand our roots.”
Founded in 2010, Mirakle Couriers employs only deaf adults. Started by Dhruv Lakra, an MBA from Oxford University, the firm has grown to operate in two branches in Mumbai, employing 70 deaf employees and delivering over 65,000 shipments per month. Winner of the 2009 Helen Keller award and the 2010 National Award for the Empowerment of People With Disablities, the establishment’s back office is run by 20 deaf women while on the field they have a team of 44 male deaf courier agents who use public transport to make deliveries. The company’s clients include Mahindra & Mahindra, The Aditya Birla Group, Victory Art Foundation, JSW Group, Indian Hotels Company, Godrej & Boyce and Essel Propack.
What prompted Lakra to set up Mirakle Couriers was his personal experience. Once he was travelling in a bus while a young boy seated next to him seemed restless and was looking around anxiously. Lakra asked him where he was going but the boy did not respond. It took him a few seconds to realise that the latter was deaf. Lakra wrote on a piece of paper in Hindi asking him where he wanted to go. It suddenly dawned on Lakra how difficult life is for the deaf.
He says, “You can not know when someone near you is deaf as there are no obvious physical attributes, and so it’s totally ignored. There is very little public sympathy for the deaf, and a severe lack of government support for them in India. Particularly when it comes to employment there are no opportunities because no one has the patience or the foresight to learn sign language. After the bus incident, I learnt the Indian Sign Language and decided to set up a courier business because it requires a lot of visual skills but no verbal communication. The deaf are extremely good at map reading, remembering roads and buildings because they are so visually alert.”
There is a systematic process through which the delivery of packages is done. The company’s field agents, who are responsible for a designated area of delivery, receive instructions via SMS of a client’s address and a time for when documents need to be picked up. Upon arriving at the client’s office, the shipments are counted and a confirmation SMS is sent back to the branch supervisor. Once the packages arrive at the branch they are sorted, processed and prepared for delivery. The female staff sorts out the shipments based on pin codes, while further sorting is carried out by field agents. Once sorted, each document is given a tracking code and entered into the system. Proof of Delivery or a digital delivery status report is then returned to the clients the day after delivery. The 31-year-old social entrepreneur reveals that working with the deaf has been an eye-opener. “I have learnt how deep rooted the problem is and a lot more needs to be done for them.”
Listening is the new tool
Set up in 2010, Sign ‘n’ Talk helps the deaf to communicate with friends, families, associates, colleagues via an interpreter who knows sign language. Registered users log in to www.signntalk.org, fill in their call details such as their name and number and get connected to the Sign ‘n’ Talk interpreter. The interpreter communicates the messages between the deaf caller through sign and speaks to the other contact over the phone. The only requirements of using the service is having a computer with internet connectivity to log on to Sign ‘n’ Talk website and a decent camera so that whatever the deaf caller signs the Sign ‘n’ Talk interpreter can see clearly. The project is in beta stage, but already has about 2,500 registered users, who are able to use the phone for the first time ever.
A joint initiative of Barrier Break Technologies and The Deaf Way Foundation, right now Sign ‘n’ Talk is a free service. Shilpi Kapoor, managing director of Barrier Break Technologies, says, “We want to make it self-sustainable and turn it into a business model to have a wider reach.”
Kapoor, a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, admits that setting up Sign ‘n’ Talk has been a huge challenge. She says, “The deaf community needs to have access to technology. Also they communicate only with their family or friends. We have to make them aware of their rights and create the need in them to communicate with society. We create this awareness by conducting seminars.”
Apart from working for the cause of the disabled, she also hires them as employees. Working with them has been an eye-opening experience, she admits. “I have learnt to adapt to them and work with them as a team,” she signs off.