November 1997, Niranjan Nerlige fell down from the fourth floor of a building.
He broke his right hand in several places, injured his spine and ended up in a
hospital bed for two years. When he got out, his hand was fine but Niranjan had
lost the use of his legs–permanently.
At the time of the accident, Nerlige was working as a technical leader with a
company in Mumbai. The company was sympathetic. They gave him Rs 50,000 for his
treatment and promised to get back to him for his reinstatement once he
recuperated. They never did.
After a painful recovery, Nerlige went back to his company, armed with a
fitness certificate from the National Center for Rehabilitation, only to be
given the cold shoulder. They told him he would have to get up from the
wheelchair and walk at least a few steps if he wanted his job. When Nerlige
pointed out that he didn’t need legs to do programming, he was asked to get a
fresh fitness certificate from a local doctor. When he got that, they told him
to go home to Bangalore and wait for his appointment letter.
The To-do List
things a company can do to ensure that it is disability-friendly
That letter never came. Two years have passed, but his last meeting with his
former employers still rankles. “They saw me in this wheelchair. They knew
what had happened to me. Yet they told me to get up and walk. Get up and
This is Nerlige’s story…it is also a story of humiliation and
embarrassment that the disabled and physically challenged have traditionally had
to face in India when looking for a job. A fortunate few bounce back.
As Nerlige did. In Bangalore, he bumped into Gopal Kamath, who had been his
boss for a little under two months in Mumbai when the accident happened. Kamath
had since joined Philips as general manager for medical systems. Kamath went to
his chief executive officer C Mahalingam (who was also the Philips
HRÂ chief) and told him of Nerlige’s situation. Nerlige was called for an
interview, his credentials were looked at and he was offered a job.
“I expected to be shunted around for long after this first
meeting,” remembers Nerlige. Instead, a bare two days later, he was
assigned an important software project. His confirmation came pat at the end of
his six-month probation and his promotion came within a year. Nerlige is now
senior manager for quality at Philips Medical Systems’ software division, in
charge of his own team. The day Dataquest met him, Nerlige and his wheelchair
were flying to Holland for a company meeting.
This is another story. It is a story of changing attitudes towards the
physically challenged in the workplace…of employers realizing that the blind
can hear, the deaf can see and spastics can think. It is a story, primarily, of
companies beginning to understand the fact that the physically challenged are
disabled, not dysfunctional. And more than most industries, it is in the IT
industry that barriers are slowly being taken down and the doors being opened up
for the disabled.
Knowledge lies ‘within’
Information technology is a knowledge workers’ industry, where labor is not
defined as a sweaty brow, steady hands and two sturdy legs. What’s up for
grabs here is the power of the mind, not the limitations of the body. Then
again, a slew of adaptive technologies are now available to help overcome
specific handicaps created by specific disabilities (see box). Traditionally,
physically challenged people have found employment in low-end, low-paying jobs–manning
STD booths, Class C and D positions in government offices, handing out water on
railway stations. But software is now available that makes it possible for the
blind to not only use a computer competently, but intelligently; that helps the
deaf communicate over the phone; and aids people with severe motor disabilities
to manipulate a cursor.
However, it’s not very easy to make traditional, old economy companies
adopt such technologies. It is even more difficult to convince old economy
managers to spend money on it. And in that sense, the IT industry is uniquely
placed–after all, it creates these technologies and is therefore far more open
to what are still seen as “experimental solutions”.
Which is really why and how Jyotindra Mehta, blind since birth, got his job
at IBM India as mainframe programmer, and later, as systems administrator.
After 19 years in the US, Mehta wanted to return home. Stateside, there are
laws that make life a lot easier for the physically challenged. But he knew that
no such laws were in place in India. So he came with his voice synthesizer, some
hope and a lot of caution, to hunt for a job. “I was well aware of the fact
that my employers here would not provide me with any help. So I came prepared
with my own voice synthesizer and adaptive software,” says Mehta. He also
came prepared to go right back to the US if India didn’t find him fit enough
to hold a decent job.
Almost by accident, he applied to IBM and was hired on a tentative basis. The
understanding was that if the company found Mehta’s blindness too much of an
obstacle, they wouldn’t keep him on. “The first six months were
rough,” recalls Mehta. For his first assignment, IBM put him on a customer’s
site in Delhi. The bad news was that the customer had really old computer
systems that were not compatible with his adaptive software (most synthesizers
need a multimedia system). The worse news was that the customer was the
government–so it refused to provide him with a desktop that would run his
Thanks to IBM, however, Mehta hit lucky the second time too. His company gave
him another chance. “After the first project, I sat with my employers to
find an alternate project. I came to Bangalore on a trial basis, but as time
went by, things became increasingly congenial. The company realized I was doing
my job well.” And what you have is a well-entrenched Mehta, today the lead
systems administrator for IBM’s mainframe division in Bangalore. He is
responsible for the S390 and all products loaded on it, high-level tech support
to the operating system, database manager, mail server and Unix system services,
among other things. He also has a team of five reporting to him.
As good as anyone else
Some Numbers Tell The picture
|In a country with high unemployment figures, the physically challenged fare the worst|
Meghna Sharma, in New Delhi
There are others like Jyotindra Mehta and Niranjan Nerlige. The story of how
Bangalore-based company Mindtree had its visual identity designed by a team of
spastic students is reasonably well known, as is the fact that Mindtree’s
entire office is decorated by designs from those same students. What is not
widely known is that Mindtree walked the talk and has hired a number of
physically challenged people at jobs that suit their abilities.
Latha, a spastic girl from the same school, has been with the company since
its very inception. Kalyan Kumar Banerjee, vice-president, C2 initiatives,
MindTree, admits that Latha has earned her stature as an essential part of the
MindTree team. “She is our face to the world. She sits in the front office
and handles all our calls and visitors. And she does a great job of it
too.” The company has another spastic software programmer who has already
jumped three jobs, and the company hopes it can find a way to retain him. It is
also a company that is very protective of its employees.
Similarly, Xansa India (the erstwhile IIS Infotech) has also taken on
physically-challenged employees. One of them, an assistant consultant in the
technical stream, doesn’t have a voice box, but that hasn’t affected his job
performance. The other has an artificial limb and works as assistant manager in
the company’s finance division.
Says, Saurabh Srivastava, CEO, Xansa India, “We are proud of their
performance. At Xansa, we have a policy that no person should be denied an
opportunity simply because they happen to suffer from a disability of any kind.
We, therefore, have people with different kinds of disabilities at various
levels. We have no hesitation in saying their performance is at least as good as
or better than that of their more fortunate peers.” Xansa is also one of
the few companies where all offices across the country are disabled-friendly.
Vamsi Dhar works at PSI Data Systems’ administration department and walks
up one floor on crutches everyday. Two weeks ago, PSI’s HR head says, “Dhar
played an in-house cricket match, bowled two overs squatting on a mat and took
Will to succeed is the only constraint
All these stories have something in common. They are stories of grit, unusual
determination and an undying will to succeed. More importantly, all these
stories are of people most decidedly seeking equal, and not special, treatment.
Says Banerjee, “First of all, we are not very comfortable with the word
disabled. We prefer to call them differently-abled. Plus, we are always aware of
the fact that what they are asking for is that they be treated like everyone
else, be taken on their merits. We are careful not to treat them
differently.” PSI echoes the sentiment. “We asked Dhar if he had
difficulty climbing up the stairs and needed help. He said no and we left it at
that. We have no intention of making him feel any different from the rest of us
because of his special problem.”
Does this mean the IT industry is going through a major transformation? Not
really, because another common thread in all these stories is that most of them–with
few exceptions–came across their jobs by accident…through chance meetings
with understanding recruiters. These are individual initiatives by individual
employees and employers. The physically challenged still find a little less than
0.6% representation in the industry.
Policy lacunae a big hurdle
|The government’s Disability Act promises much but delivers little|
India has had a disability act, called The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, since 1995. Broadly, it deals with government-sponsored education, employment and equal access facilities in public places. Perhaps the most aggressively implemented part of this act is the employment of Class C and D employees in government institutions. As for the rest: the less said of it, the better. However, here’s a brief list of promises the government made under this act and mostly–did not keep
The reason is simple. Though it is most ready for it, the IT industry, like
all other business segments in the country, has no policy on the hiring of
physically challenged people. Which is a bit of a surprise, due to many factors.
For one, though the IT industry created adaptive technologies targeting
particular disabilities, most people within the industry are surprisingly
unaware that such technologies exist. Many, for instance, draw the line at
hiring blind people. Faneesh Kumar, PSI, says, “The kind of work we do is
application software development, which requires coding. So we can never think
of blind people.” Yet, Mehta at IBM handles mainframes. He is not an
exception. Most people within the industry did not know what a screen-reader was
or what a voice synthesizer did. They were also unaware of the fact that special
pointing devices existed for people with motor disabilities in their hands.
Then again, large multinationals in the industry come with a history of what
is called “equal access” facilities and a knowledge of what
“reasonable accommodation” for the physically challenged means. In
most of the western world and in parts of South-East Asia, notably Singapore,
there are laws that are strictly enforced.
Briefly, these are the two concepts that the international law on disability
Qualified individual with a
disability: The basic premise is that at the workplace, one is only
talking of people who meet the fundamental professional requirements for the
job. There can be no compromise on that. A qualified individual with a
disability is thus defined as “an individual with a disability whose
experience, education and/or training enable the person, with reasonable
accommodation, to perform the essential functions of the job”.
accommodation: The second premise is that while companies are not
expected to discriminate against people based on their disabilities, they
are also not expected to make unreasonable adjustments (that would include
undue costs and extensive or disruptive changes) for them. As such,
“reasonable accommodation” is what a company can do in terms of
structuring the job or work environment and providing assisting devices to
accommodate a disabled employee without undue hardship to itself.
Ranjan Chak, executive director, Oracle Software India and
head, development center, Oracle India, says, “We make this accommodation.
This may include job retraining, an adjusted work schedule, special equipment or
transportation, or job modification to optimize performance.” The company’s
80,000-sq ft facility in Bangalore has also been designed for equal access, from
external ramps to restrooms on the ground floor that can support wheelchair
access even for visitors.
Majority turns a blind eye
Yet, barring exceptions like Oracle, Philips and a few
others, most MNCs and large Indian companies don’t take the trouble of doing
anything. Surprisingly so, for quite a few of these same companies have specific
policies on the hiring of the disabled and on providing equal access facilities
in their buildings in their offices in other parts of the world.
As the India head of one of the biggest IT firms in the world
said, "…but Indian law doesn’t require it!" However, should such
companies wait for laws to be passed to provide some of the most basic
facilities? Says Srivastava, "Such laws can only serve as guidelines. Large
companies should be sensitive to the needs of their employees. Rather than wait
for laws, they should be proactive in providing such facilities and consider
this as a social obligation."
Mehta, having seen both sides of the picture——a law-bound
US and an indifferent India——tends to lean towards a more voluntary system.
"Personally, I’m not a big proponent of ruthless enforcement of the law.
It is education that is the real solution." He explains why: "In the
US, it is considerably easier to find a job at the entry level. But advancement
is a hell of a problem. They wouldn’t mind throwing a few dollars at you,
giving a little software and hiring you. But involving you, leveraging your
abilities, trusting you——its very difficult for the middle management."
Remarkably, Mehta finds that though India’s infrastructure for the disabled is
pathetic, mindsets are more open.
|Disabled perhaps, but certainly not dysfunctional. Datamatics’ associates provide knowledge management services to some of the best companies in the world|
Five of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies enjoy a privilege: their data is processed by special people at Mumbai-based Datamatics Technologies. Known as knowledge associates, these physically challenged professionals deliver a range of knowledge management services–data entry, document capture and conversion, and tagging. Datamatics employs some 500-odd associates mostly with deformities in their lower limbs. The company calls this its corporate citizen initiative and includes “equal access” with facilities like ramps, elevators and a structured working methodology.
This means the employees have flexible working hours and can work from home.
Work, always to be completed within the deadline, is assigned based on the capability of the person. It is sent over e-mail or through in-house couriers. The associates’ work is coordinated by counselors with good interpersonal skills. The company provides basic training in computer programs. The initiative is not charity, but a philanthropic venture by Dr Lalit Kanodia, Datamatics’ chairman.
Bijesh Kamath, in Mumbai
But really, to ask a basic question——why should industry
care? Why should it make any accommodation at all? Certainly, the numbers don’t
justify it: while there may be a lot of physically challenged people, not all of
them are trained for this sector. Besides, Indian law doesn’t demand any
accommodation. Nor frankly, does morality.
But this isn’t really about numbers or law or morality. It’s
about something simpler: decency, a sense of social responsibility and basic
intellectual honesty. If this is the knowledge industry, then that is where it
should focus——on the minds that house that knowledge. All else is secondary.
No story on the physically challenged would be complete
without a mention of Stephen Hawking, one of the brightest minds of our age. A
terribly-affected spastic and an incredibly great mind. Sometimes, however,
superlatives and larger-than-life personalities tend to overshadow quieter
courage closer at hand. Niranjan Nerlige, Jyotindra Mehta, Vamsi Dhar and many
more like them——these are ordinary people doing extraordinary things right
here. Does that give them a right to reasonable accommodation at the workplace?
That, could be argued about? But have they earned it? No question about that.
Sarita Rani in