Shanti Raghavan: Enabling a more inclusive India

Preeti Mehra | Updated on March 09, 2020

Shanti Raghavan is helping thousands of people with disabilities get trained, join the workforce, earn a livelihood, and live with dignity

Shanti Raghavan is a live wire. Indeed, had she not been electric, it would perhaps not have been possible for her to wire up over 725 companies, source jobs and impact the livelihoods of over 50,000 people with disabilities (PWDs). That the organisation under Raghavan’s watch — EnAble India — has transformed lives ever since it was set up in 1999 would be telling the story in a nutshell without dwelling upon the commitment that goes into bringing about such change.

It all started in the early 1990s, when Raghavan’s 15-year-old brother Hari was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that leads to loss of eyesight. Shocked at this development and wanting to do something about it, Shanti and her husband Dipesh Sutariya, both employed in the information technology sector in the US, asked Hari to come over.

Recalls Shanti: “We simply had fun with him, taught him swimming, after which we went snorkelling, kayaking, rock climbing — name the ‘ing’, we did it. By the end of it, my brother said: ‘I can even walk on water.’ But then came the big challenge: though he topped the MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, it took all of 70 interviews for him to land a job because of his visual impairment.”

That was the decisive experience that spurred Raghavan and Sutariya to start EnAble India for others like Hari wishing to be part of the mainstream. Since then, she, as Founder and Chief Enabler, and her husband, as CEO and Co-founder, have never looked back. They have together nurtured a veritable movement that brings jobs and PWDs together. It is a story of dedication and perseverance.

A new vocabulary

Raghavan, an Ashoka Fellow, has no room for words such as ‘problems’ and ‘challenges’ in her dictionary. Her work philosophy has been imbibed by the close to 100 staff members in her organisation. “There is always a solution and we look for it actively,” she says. The search for solutions has even led to the evolution of a new vocabulary for the sector. “In other countries they use ‘reasonable accommodation’ when referring to fitting PWDs into jobs. We use terms like ‘workplace solutions’ and ‘includability’, which have now become popular.”

When she began interacting with PWDs, Raghavan was quick to understand that they were no different from her and shared the same hopes and fears. From this realisation evolved the mantra ‘I see me in you’, which she still swears by. She also realised that the main hurdle in India for anyone seeking employment is that they have neither adequate skills nor the right attitude to work.

Getting them job-ready

So, her next mission became making every prospective PWD candidate job-ready, with exposure opportunities, training and internships. The PWDs were also nudged towards volunteer work. For example, some joined mitigation action being taken by NGO Goonj for flood victims in Bihar by collecting clothes and provisions. Others helped at a cancer hospital or worked with transgenders on HIV-related issues.

Such experiences allow candidates to explore their talent, realise their worth, learn the virtues of discipline and gain in mental strength, emerging with a resolve to work hard and believe in themselves.

For each candidate to function with utmost efficiency, customised solutions are found and implemented on the ground. For this, a detailed on-site job analysis is necessary and tools are adapted to transform them into job enablers.

The job aspirants, armed with some key qualities that make for a desired candidate, are ready to be employed. As they join the workforce and are appreciated by employers, it brings about another change — this time in the companies that hire them. Over time, the companies begin to imbibe a culture of inclusion. Managers start participating actively in such recruitments. “We found influencers and changemakers growing among the corporates whom we could leverage to further our goals,” notes Raghavan.

Dinesh Kumar from Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh has witnessed this development. He now works full-time in EnAble India as part of the candidates support team. After finishing his diploma in Computer Science and Engineering, the wheelchair-bound young man, too, faced several job rejections. “Then I underwent three months of employability training here, including a voluntary stint on a Goonj project. I was suddenly exposed to concepts like work ethics and time management and learnt that quality and efficiency were key deliverables in a job. I also received training in spoken English, which boosted my confidence. The training was wonderful. We impart the same values to our current crop of candidates and this goes down well with companies.”

Today, the maximum placements take place in the IT sector, banking and finance. Raghavan has taken pains to create frameworks, consolidate a job compendium that details job roles for PWDs, and design a robust employment model. “Every lesson learnt has been put back into the model,” she says. And this is something that is apparent at her office in Koramangala, Bengaluru, where staff with different disabilities work together, not only sharing and caring for one another but also complementing each other’s skills.

Because of the valuable contribution made by Raghavan and her organisation, it comes as no surprise that it has been able to garner adequate funds. Initially the grants came from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and companies such as Axis Bank and Tech Mahindra. Today EnAble India has a host of corporate social responsibility funders, including Accenture, Bank of America, BPCL, and JP Morgan. Apart from funding, 10 per cent of the income is now generated by charging a fee for activities such as workshops, consulting, outsourced work and engaging with the government and public sector undertakings.

Key initiatives

Apart from fitting pegs into holes, Raghavan has broadened her horizon in order to institutionalise the hiring of PWDs in the open market, where no reservations exist for them. In the large bouquet of services and projects focussing on their employment, three innovative initiatives promoted by her promise to bring greater scale to the movement.

One is Mission 1000, which focusses on inclusive employment and brings together companies, disability organisations, parents and job coaches. Any company can sign up for it and run it for 1,000 days with the aim of providing a thousand opportunities to persons with developmental, severe and multiple disabilities, and their families. The disabilities include Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, deafblind and autism. The opportunities offered are expansive and range from open wage employment to pre-vocational and vocational work, including outsourcing job work, procuring goods made by PWDs and supporting entrepreneurs with special needs. The model is designed to develop candidates, incubate their talent, employ their abilities and impact a thousand lives.

The second initiative is ‘The Valuable 500’, which EnAble India became a part of in January last year. It was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “It has been conceived as a global movement that places disability inclusion on the business leadership agenda and celebrates those already committed to inclusion. We have signed up 20-plus companies and are looking for more. With this initiative, we are expecting to make an all-encompassing change,” says Raghavan.

As the only business resource network to be recognised in India and Asia, EnAble India is mandated to pull corporate companies into the global movement so that 500 business leaders and their brands “ignite systemic change by unlocking the business, social and economic value of the 1.3 billion people living with disabilities around the world.” Some of the big names who have joined up from India are Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Wipro, the Mahindra Group, and Brookfield. Valuable 500 puts disability up front with its slogan: “If disability is not on your Board agenda, neither is diversity.”

The third initiative is Namma Vaani platform. This interactive voice response (IVR) automated telephony system, which can be used on a non-smart mobile, is penetrating the last mile in the Karnataka hinterland. It interacts with callers, gathers information and routes calls to recipients via a moderator. Also launched in the Hindi heartland as Hamari Vaani, it crowdsources solutions for PWDs at the personal and professional level.

“The platform has gone viral as you get a response for any issue you may raise. When several people come up with solutions, it always helps,” says Raghavan. She points out how a single ad put up on Namma Vaani to recruit candidates for two data-entry companies in Bengaluru led to the employment of 27 PWDs.

Numerous success stories have emerged from the IVR platform. For example, the physically disabled Rajkumar Bakappa has turned into a successful entrepreneur by using Namma Vaani to connect with people and share his passion for photography. He now undertakes wedding photography assignments.

Raghavan recalls the case of three blind brothers from Siri village in Tumakuru district who are good musicians and used the platform to turn professional. “I have realised that moving the meter is important. We are mostly peer learners and cannot possibly be there for everyone.”

For Shanti Raghavan, every day reveals new dimensions, brings forth fresh challenges and, with them, new ideas and solutions.

Published on March 09, 2020

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