Jayshree Raveendran, a disabled herself, is quietly changing the way our society looks at those with disability by helping them find employment.
The visiting card of Jayshree Raveendran, Founder and Honorary Executive Director, Ability Foundation, has also her name, address and phone number written in Braille at the back. That act itself says what she and the Ability Foundation stand for.
Jayshree, a hearing impaired is a Doctorate in English literature and was a lecturer at the Indira Gandhi Open University before she decided to start Ability, a magazine exclusively for the disabled, in 1995.
Today, there is no area in the lives of the disabled that Ability Foundation has not touched.
When they started a job fair for the disabled in 2004, it was a first of its kind in India.
Shobha Warrier met Jayshree for an exclusive chat as she and the other office bearers of Ability Foundation were gearing up for the 2012 job fair to be held in Hyderabad on the 2nd and 3rd of November.
When we first met in the nineties, you were publishing the magazine Ability. Why did you decide to name the magazine Ability?
Because I believe ability is not the opposite of disability. There is ability in disability. The word ability exists in disability. Disability has to be seen as a noun. I wanted to say, you look for ability everywhere. What is a handicap is not disability per se but the environment and access to everything. You cannot say everything is available, take it if you want.
As you know, I began the magazine in 1995 as a one woman institution. It was from my own subjective experience as a person with hearing impairment that I asked why others have not done what I have done. I had a fantastic supportive family that did not make me feel I could not do anything. I did well academically, worked at many places and had been a performer-dancer all my life. I never felt that I could not do anything. So, I felt other disabled people also could do and feel the way I did.
I started the magazine as there was not a single one for the disabled when you have magazines on every other subject in society. There were 70 million people with disability in India but they were not seen and their voices not heard. Why were they invisible, I thought?
Ability is not only positive but inspiring and informative. I want to sensitise society too as no man is an island.
'Employing a person with disability is not CSR; it's only HR'
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
How did the idea to start a job fair for the disabled come to you?
Ability Foundation functioned as a placement wing which is a kind of bridge between discerning employers and qualified people with disabilities.
Does that mean there are employers who are ready to employ disabled people?
We have to sensitise them. Of course, there are many who are sensitive and open minded. And, there are the other kind who need to be told. When we began the placement wing in 1997, it was a need-based requirement. Some people who were in wheel chairs came to me and asked whether we could help them find jobs. That was how it began; on 1:1 basis.
The idea was to tell the companies that they were not employing someone with disability but employing a qualified person, and they were not losing out on anything. We have told from day one that employing a person with disability is not CSR; it's only HR. It makes business sense to employ a well qualified deserving person with disability.
On the one side, many disabled persons are fantastically qualified but have nowhere to turn to for jobs. And on the other, companies ask, are there qualified disabled people?
Bridging the gap
So, the job fair was a kind of bridge between companies and qualified disabled people?
Yes, the job fair became an extension of the placement wing and a kind of bridge between the two. The success of the placement wing made us realise that we needed a wider platform and bring in more people. We have people from all over the country registered with our placement wing.
By 2004, we had quite a few companies coming back to us to employ more and more people. By then, we had also started employment related soft skills training in Chennai. Unfortunately we could not look beyond Tamil Nadu and Chennai.
Regardless of disability, when you are fresh out of college, you need some soft skills training. It is more so if you are with disability and more so, if you are coming from a special school background.
'We do not believe in using words like specially-abled, differently-abled, specially-challenged'
Why do you say 'job fair for the disabled' when expressions like differently-abled, specially-challenged, visually challenged, etc. are used these days?
We believe that nobody is special; everybody is ordinary. Nobody is normal or abnormal. We do not believe in using words like specially-abled, differently-abled, specially-challenged, etc. It is a very condescending attitude to use such words.
What is wrong in saying disabled when a person has disability? A person with disability has nothing to feel ashamed of. He/she is not ashamed of herself/himself. It is not a crime to be disabled. Disability is not necessary from birth. It can happen to anyone at any time. So many wheel chair users are with spinal injuries. As one grows older, everyone acquires one disability or another.
There is nothing special about disability.
'Society does not know how to react to a person with disability'
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Why do you think the politically correct words like differently-abled, physically-challenged etc. are used by the society these days?
I think it is more a question of being embarrassed. Society does not know how to react to a person with disability. They want to say, you are not disabled, you are fine... and so, use these words.
We always say, the phrase differently-abled is coined by the indifferently abled! How are you different to say you are differently-abled? When you cannot see, you cannot see as there is no other way you can see. Full stop. Disability is not a disease. It's a lifelong condition.
Everyone has the right to live life to the maximum as members of the society, and as citizens of the country. They have the right to access to everything that every other citizen has access to like education, jobs, etc. People are people first.
'We had to knock a 100 doors so that a few opened!'
When you started the job fair, did you have difficulty in convincing the companies to participate in it?
There were 36 corporates in the first job fair that we had in Chennai in 2004. We had to knock a 100 doors so that a few opened! We always tell the corporates to come with the intention of hiring. When we first knocked on their doors, there were questions like, do they have the required qualifications? Some even asked whether they would know computer languages.
When we started looking at the CVs of candidates, we found that there were many with the kind of qualification which the companies were asking for. It was a revelation to us also that there were many extremely qualified people but they were not getting placed simply because they were disabled.
'Our job fair at Guwahati made history'
How successful was the first job fair in 2004?
We had about 800 people participating in the first job fair. The minimum qualification required to participate was and is graduation and above.
Candidates register themselves for the job fair much earlier. Every candidate's CV is matched with the company's requirements. The only thing we look at is whether the candidate is qualified or not for the available opening. The day before the job fair, we have a small programme on personality development where HR personnel from various companies talk to them on how to conduct themselves in interviews.
It's not a walk-in interview. Employment is not offered over the table. Each candidate has to go through various stages of interviews. It's a long process.
The first person who got placed at our first job fair was Siddharth, a person with cerebral palsy at ABN Amro Bank.
After that, we had job fairs in Delhi and Guwahati other than in Chennai. The one at Guwahati made history as no one had held a job fair in the north east before. Candidates from all the 5 states came to the fair.
In 2006, around 65 companies came to interview the candidates and 45 of them got placed. People from 21 states have been participating in the job fairs. Every year, at least 12-15 per cent get placed.
'The idea has caught on all over the country'
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
When is this year's Hyderabad job fair going to happen?
We are doing it in Hyderabad on the 2nd and 3rd of November as we found that every year, majority of the candidates who come to the job fair were from Andhra Pradesh.
Is Ability Foundation the only organisation that conducts job fairs for the disabled?
We were the first to start and now, I would say, we have set a trend. For the first few years, we were the only ones doing this. Then, the idea has caught on all over the country