Until very recently the disabled had severely limited opportunities for employment. That is changing slowly but surely as the public and private sector realise the benefits of inclusion of the disabled not just as a token gesture but as a business imperative. Bangalore's Infosys BPO employs 165 persons with disability, Mphasis employs 140 at its Bangalore office. And 90% of the workforce at Vindhya E-Infomedia is disabled
- Infosys BPO has introduced a line in its job advertisements that goes: "Persons with disability (PWD) are encouraged to apply". Starting with 28 PWD, the company today employs 165 and plans to double the number in future.
- NIIT has introduced special computer training programmes for the visually impaired. It has also developed a computer-assisted teaching and rehabilitation programme for spastics.
- Quatrro BPO Solutions is partnering with Ability Foundation, Chennai, to organise an employability job fair for differently-abled people, in association with the National HRD Network.
These facts and figures are sourced from a study jointly conducted by NASSCOM and Deloitte in April 2008. The study, 'Indian IT/ITES Industry; Impacting Economy and Society 2007-2008', is based on responses received from NASSCOM member companies as well as analysis of facts and information available from secondary sources.
The NASSCOM-Deloitte survey indicates that "64% of IT/ITES companies employ persons with disability. Companies are also making efforts to create a suitable working environment for differently-enabled people by making workplaces more accessible, arranging transportation and sensitising employees".
Not so long ago, the approved list of jobs considered suitable for persons with disability severely limited their opportunities -- for example, blind people could only apply for jobs as telephone operators or music teachers. Poverty and lack of accessible disabled-friendly educational facilities prevented many PWD from pursuing higher education.
PWD who manage to secure a basic education despite these hurdles still have to confront many barriers in securing employment appropriate to their talents and capabilities. Many prospective employers are so taken aback by the physical disability of a candidate that they are reluctant to consider the idea of employing them despite their qualifications.
Meenu Bhambhani, Manager, Community Initiative, Mphasis, says: "The problem is as much in a difficult environment as in the disability itself." Meenu, a disabled person herself, helps frame company policies to enable PWD to prove their worth in the futuristic world of information technology (IT). "Resorting to stereotypes can lead to immense waste of talent," she adds.
"The environment can be modified to bring out the talents of the disabled. Sometimes, the solutions are simple and cost-effective. Shifting a classroom from the top to the ground floor may prove enough to retain a disabled child in a normal school," Meenu says, drawing on her considerable experience as a disability rights activist.
Thankfully, it is now an accepted fact that provided with a supportive environment to learn and grow, PWD have the capacity to work efficiently and earn a living with dignity. Indeed, they can be a valuable addition to the skilled workforce.
Says Hema Ravichandar, Strategic Human Resource Advisor: "With the talent shortage, institutional initiatives to encourage diversity and, more importantly, the inclusive mindset are no longer just a nice thing to do but are actually a business imperative." Hema explains that this helps widen the available talent pool while encouraging merit-worthy yet differently-abled individuals to make a mark and be productive. "Most mature organisations today are sensitive to this talent pool, but only some have initiatives to harness their potential in a structured and planned manner," she explains.
For the purpose of researching this article, we contacted several IT companies such as TCS, Infosys, 24x7, and Lasersoft, which are known to employ the disabled. Mphasis and Vindhya E-Infomedia responded with details of their special initiatives to train and integrate PWD.
Project Communicate, a training programme for persons with disability, was launched in October 2007, jointly by Mphasis, Diversity & Equal Opportunity Centre (DEOC) and the Association of People with Disability (APD). Project Communicate aims to train and develop candidates to be "industry ready" with the skills required for a successful career in ITES.
"Mphasis financially supports the training and designs the curriculum, and is one of the rare companies that walks that extra mile towards proactive hiring. Mphasis has hired 140 disabled persons in Bangalore to date. Plans are on to extend the programme to the company's branches in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat," says Meenu.
Pavithra Y S, Managing Director, Vindhya E-Infomedia, Bangalore, says: "Vindhya is a company in which 90% of its employees are disabled. Vindhya E-Infomedia was conferred with the Shell Helen Keller Award for our meritorious service to the physically challenged. We want our employees to believe that they can exceed their expectations from themselves and from life."
Ashok D Giri, Executive Director, Vindhya E-Infomedia, adds: "Having made the policy of employing only PWD, our facility is completely friendly to them. They are very happy as we treat them normally and also provide boarding and lodging for our outstation employees."
Most of the staff at Vindhya are not only PWD but are also from poor rural backgrounds that lack the higher education and other facilities available to the urban handicapped. Salma is a senior employee at Vindhya E-Infomedia. She underwent a year's training in computers at an ITI and is now a team leader heading eight BPO workers. Javariah, from Honagahalli village, Malavalli taluka, Karnataka, earned his BCom degree and then trained in basic computer skills at a private institute. He currently works in BPO operations at Vindhya E-Infomedia and trains other employees.
Vindhya already has close to 100 PWD and is in the process of hiring more, with a target of 250 by the end of the year.
Iridium Interactive Limited has a workforce of around 100 people, 5% of whom are PWD. They are recruited for high-end technology jobs from various Tier 2 cities, put into a 'finishing school' for the company's customised hands-on training programme and then given on-the-job training before they are absorbed in the company on an equal platform. Iridium plans to recruit around 25 visually impaired people at its testing centres in Noida, Mumbai and Hyderabad, to test its disabled-friendly products before launch.
The IT and ITES industries are well suited to employing PWD at various levels. Since these are primarily desk jobs, PWD can work in their seats with relatively little discomfort. PWD are employed in IT and ITES companies for various types of work including policymaking, development and testing of complex and advanced software, and BPO and KPO services such as data entry and data processing, medical transcription, call centre jobs, web services, and processing claims and application forms.
Technological innovations such as JAWS software can convert text into speech, thus enabling visually handicapped persons to work at computers without using the monitor. The visually handicapped can also use normal keyboards by memorising the keys. Keyboard shortcuts eliminate the need for a mouse. JAWS helps Milind (name changed on request), who is blind and holds an MPhil in Economics from IIT Mumbai, perform duties on a par with his enabled colleagues at Mphasis. After orientation, aided by a trained person, Milind now independently navigates the Mphasis campus.
Rajesh (name changed on request) has a BE degree and is a qualified software developer with Mphasis. He has cerebral palsy and suffers from a speech impairment. He moves about in a wheelchair. All this has not hampered Rajesh's performance.
The visually handicapped can also work in jobs involving voice communication, such as call centre activities. Likewise, the hearing impaired can work at computers using visual cues. IT and ITES companies such as Mphasis and Vindhya E-Infomedia create presentations and training materials for their PWD employees in both sound and visual formats.
It was the government and public sector undertakings (PSUs) that took the lead in providing employment and other work opportunities to people with disability some years ago. Several ministries and departments of the Government of India and various state governments provide concessions such as subsidised rail and air travel, special conveyance allowances to disabled employees, and income tax concessions.
The award of dealerships by PSU oil companies and economic assistance by nationalised banks at differential rates of interest (4%) to people with disability empowers them to set up their own income-generating business ventures. PSU banks too offer concessional loans and donations to organisations working for the welfare of the disabled.
Canara Bank and State Bank of Mysore regularly recruit PWD through special recruitment drives, and offer them facilities such as postings at convenient locations and special conveyance allowances. Blind persons have been trained to operate telephone exchanges and reception counters at these banks. Several PWD currently serve in managerial positions at these banks. Even a small bank like State Bank of Mysore has 110 PWD employees out of a total workforce of around 9,000.
Corporate India has, in recent years, followed in the public sector's footsteps and realised that such initiatives come with many advantages. Other companies too are waking up to this concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
CafÃ© Coffee Day, to cite another example, employs and trains PWD in skills such as preparing coffee. NGOs like Enable India, Bangalore, train disabled people in resume-building, mock interviews, psychological profiles and other areas to enable them to function more effectively at the workplace.
"Nowadays I find that many corporations perform only 10% of CSR, and hype becomes 90%. This phenomenon is good neither for society nor the company," says Professor Y S Rajan (in corporatezine.in, April 2008 issue). Ideally, CSR has to happen as part of the company's vision to gain the respect and cooperation of the community, not as a short-term publicity measure.
CSR not only boosts a company's image, it has several long-term positive results. Employees feel more motivated to work for a company with a social conscience. Enhanced productivity and profit is an indirect outcome. CSR is not charity but a company's return to the community that is helping it to grow and sustain profits.
As Elango R, Chief Human Resource Officer, Mphasis, says: "Creating an inclusive workplace is the key to our corporate mission... (Disabled) employees have distinguished themselves with their commitment to the organisation and value they bring to our customers."
(Monideepa Sahu is a Bangalore-based freelance writer of both fiction and non-fiction, with a variety of interests including social issues and literature)
InfoChange News & Features, October 2008