Shruti Pushkarna: Breaking down Barriers: Connecting corporates to persons with disabilities

15 Jul,2021

Shruti PushkarnaBy Shruti Pushkarna

 

I must confess it’s great to write this column after a totally unplanned/ unexpected break of three-and-a-half months. When I wrote my last piece, mulling over the choices about the world we want to co-create, little did I know that my own life would leave me with no choice but to battle with an illness that consumed me physically as well as mentally. Yes, you guessed that right. Hit by the deadly Delta variant of SARS CoV-2, my family and I had a narrow escape. But more on that in the upcoming columns.

 

Vineet Saraiwala

Vineet Saraiwala

Putting the focus back on disability, I had the opportunity to speak with Vineet Saraiwala who is the founder of an innovative platform called Atypical Advantage. An IIM Bangalore graduate, with a successful run at Future Group as their Inclusion Lead, Vineet’s ambitions have been unimpeded by his vision impairment. He suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye condition that results in gradual sight loss. Unlike a majority of disabled people, Vineet grew up in a supportive environment that gave him access to equal opportunities of education and employment. In his previous avatar, he transformed how people with disabilities shop across India through pioneering concepts like ‘Sabke Liye’ which is a blend of assistive services and accessible spaces and a quiet hour, which is a sensory-friendly experience for individuals with autism. Vineet strongly believes that generation of compassion is the only way to make the world a better place and he is on a mission to transform the lives of persons with disabilities.

 

In this interview, he talks about his latest venture, the gaps that exist in employability, how to effectively create an inclusive society, and more.

 

Atypical Advantage completed six months in June 2021. Tell us a bit about this journey but before you do that, please also tell our audience what the platform is all about.

Atypical Advantage (AA) is planet’s first platform for People with Disabilities (PwDs) where you can hire talent, find jobs, and buy products or paintings or commission artwork. We would like to map skills of PwDs across the country and match it with potential employers. We aim to empower them by highlighting their ‘abilities’. At AA, you can hire models for your product shoot, sign language interpreters for making your events inclusive, singers/ dancers for your shows, masseurs to relax your body and much more from a wide array of 450+ Talent with Disabilities across 20 categories. We host some of the finest paintings made by persons with disabilities and aim to democratise jobs/ freelancing in this era of Work from Home opportunities where disabled people have lagged behind. The platform can create employment opportunities and open new avenues for the sector at scale. It can be an instrument of change for the entire spectrum of people with disabilities in the country and give them livelihood with dignity. Since its inception, we have 55,000 unique visitors on the platform, close to 600 talents have signed up, and there are 450 artworks by 85 artists with disabilities. It’s been the platform of choices for people with disabilities as well as corporates to go ahead and hire. Already, there are 50-plus jobs on our job portal. Amazon hired its first model with learning disability from our platform, few masseurs and physiotherapists got opportunities, sign language interpreters too. We are close to clocking 100 artwork sales including across the US. A lot of people in the lockdown struggled to get basic performance opportunities. A magician got a booking from a corporate, a motivational speaker was also booked, so a lot of positive stories and a lot to be grateful towards. We need to do a lot more going forward.

 

How did you decide to leave your corporate job and go full time on this venture? What drove you?

A very philosophical question but probably the lockdown, Covid crisis, job crisis, and inspiration from a sector stalwart. I had gone to meet Venkat Krishnan (Former CEO of GiveIndia and the man behind Daan Utsav) and he said that this idea is fantastic and it can serve PwDs at scale. He said it’s not about you or me, but I’ll be sad that India will lose an opportunity to help persons with disabilities. So how could I miss this chance? It’s true that this is a great opportunity to help PwDs. Someone really needed to do something about it. I was feeling very bad on not being able to help persons with disabilities with long-term solutions. This platform aims to give dignity to PwDs and give them a source of livelihood. I am privileged and have a safety net so if individuals like me won’t step up, how could we create an Inclusive society? I am a person with disability and understand the challenges at a deeper level. I am lucky in every sense and grateful that I got the opportunity to serve a marginalised section.

 

What was the gap that you identified which led to the genesis of AA?

The platform is all about gaps. There is no platform globally also where you can look at abilities of people with disabilities in a transparent manner. Let’s say you want to hire a singer or a dancer, where is the platform for this? Similarly, let’s say you want to book a massage or give livelihood to PwDs, there’s nothing globally or in India. So the gap is pretty evident but no one’s tried to capitalise on that gap.

 

As a person with vision impairment, you have studied in the mainstream in premier institutions and also worked with the best corporates, why do you think most persons with disabilities lose out on such opportunities of education and employment?

The problem is in the schooling system. We are not able to have inclusive schools where people with disabilities get in. We don’t have accessible soft copies for people with visual disabilities, sign language interpreters are not there, and schools are not accessible. So if the entry point for a person with disability has so many barriers, naturally as you go forward, this goes on reducing. And as you know I have Retinitis Pigmentosa. Till Class 10, I had regular schooling, after that my problem worsened. So in that sense I’m privileged in a lot of ways but the problem starts with schools.

 

How does Atypical Advantage aim to bridge the gap in employment?

Atypical Advantage is actually trying to revolutionise the entire concept of livelihood generation. Freelancing and gig work is coming up in a big way. By 2030, it is estimated that 45% of the global workforce would be freelancing. Are PwDs ready for freelancing assignments at this point? The answer is no. So if you look at the platform, it essentially focuses on freelancing, services like massage and physiotherapy, full time employment like mutual fund executives or insurance executives, on performing artists, and it also focuses on specialized work where PwD excel. Especially people with learning disabilities, Autism or Down Syndrome, in which case they are comfortable working from home. And this gives them empowerment. There is also another interesting category on the platform called Entrepreneurs. We also keep products and painting made by PwDs. So it’s a 360-degree view on giving employment and livelihood opportunities of any kind to PwDs across the country.

 

With Valuable 500, there is a lot of talk about there being decent demand for employment but a shortage of supply. We also know for a fact, a lot of persons with disabilities lack good education and the professionalism to work in a competitive environment in the private sector. What’s your view on this?

This is a huge gap. I think the problem is clearly on the supply side of things. We need to train and skill PwDs into the jobs of the future. At this point people with disabilities are not ready for those jobs. And I feel scared and sad that we are not doing enough to prepare for jobs. This pandemic has just further amplified the problem. And this problem will go on further. I don’t have any solutions for this but I think someone needs to step up and skill these people for future jobs.

 

In your previous avatar at Future Group, you were leading accessibility initiatives, what in your experience prevents businesses from being inclusive?

I feel a lot of brands are scared of disabled people and they don’t even want to try. For example, we are doing a campaign with an organization, and they told us that a lot of people with Cerebral Palsy are not hired just because of their voice. Imagine they might have the skills but just their voice discourages companies from hiring them. I think the lack of exposure creates the greatest divide in the society and corporates have never even tried to interact with people with disabilities. And without that exposure, inhibition and biases continue to exist. But once we have more exposure, a lot of problems within the corporate sector would go down. Secondly, of course the willingness to try is also lacking.

 

Coming back to AA, what is the business model for the sustenance of this platform?

Our business model is continuously evolving and we earn commissions from selling of artwork and products to make the venture opex sustainable.

 

Is there something you would like to say to media houses or media owners, as far as inclusion of persons with disabilities goes?

I would urge the media to get out of this syndrome of ‘…despite being a person with disability.’ I think there are two ways of looking at things. Look at any media house, it would either look at PwDs as people with sixth sense, divinity, spirituality, gifts of God. Or less human, sympathetic, handicapped, crippled. Look at any media story, they’ll portray it as ‘…despite being a person with visual or hearing disability, he/ she achieved so much…’ We need to stop doing that. We need to promote accessible technology, tell people about assistive aids. That would be useful. When you capture a story of a person with disability, talk about the aids (s)he uses to work, so that others are informed. At present the media doesn’t speak about it at all.

 

In your opinion, can individuals working in the media industry advocate for access and inclusion? If yes, how?

I think the media needs to talk more about inclusion. Even talk to organization while discussing strategy, highlight the organisations which are not inclusive, question them on their practices, what kind of people with disabilities have they hired etc. I think the discourse of disability in the mainstream is very limited. So the media needs to talk to India Inc. on these things.

 

You can learn more about Atypical Advantage, here.

 

Shruti Pushkarna heads operations of the New Delhi-based Score Foundation where she works as Director-Programmes & Communications. She is a former journalist (part of the founding team of MxMIndia) who has moved full-time to the social sector. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. You can tweet your comments and suggestions to @shrutipushkarna

 

 

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