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Vamsi Dhar is with PSI Data Systems’ admin department In

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
  • Make buildings

    disabled-friendly. It doesn’t cost much. And make sure that the fact

    is advertised

  • Mention in recruitment

    advertisements that physically challenged people are encouraged to

    apply, provided they have the required professional qualifications.

    Some ads say, "We are an equal opportunity employer."

    However, very few people in India really know what that means

  • Register at special

    employment sites and search engines for the disabled. Also, inform

    NGOs and special training institutes about your inclusive recruitment


  • Caution headhunters against

    automatically rejecting an applicant because of a physical impairment

  • Make your website comply

    with W3C recommendations (these are guidelines for making websites

    accessible to people with disabilities)

  • IT companies with their own

    educational services divisions can ensure that their training

    facilities and education methods are access friendly

  • Involve physically

    challenged people in internal training programs

  • Look at growth paths for

    the disabled objectively. Physically challenged people are not

    automatically unsuited for people management functions

  • Sensitize co-workers

  • Make it clear that if it

    hires a physically challenged person it will not be out of charity but

    because he or she is qualified to do the job. Having done that, make

    sure that the physically challenged are treated no differently from

    the others.


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

HR 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
  • There are over 70 million disabled people in the country today or about 6% of the population
  • Of these 70 million, only about 0.15% have found some kind of employment. A majority of these are low-tech, low paying jobs
  • Less than 1% of children with disability receive education of any kind
  • The NCPEDP conducted a study in 1999, of the top 100 corporate houses in the country. The picture that emerged was:
  • the average percentage of employees with disabilities is a dismal 0.4% 
  • in the public sector it was 0.54% 
  • in the private sector the percentage was 0.28%
  • in MNCs it was a mere .05% 
  • of the top 100 corporate houses approached, 30 did not respond in spite of several reminders. 

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

two wickets."

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

Wasted Laws

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

  • Will ensure that every child with a disability has access to free education in an appropriate environment till he is 18
  • Will remove architectural barriers from schools, colleges or other institutions imparting vocational and professional training
  • Transport departments will adapt rail compartments, buses, vessels and aircraft for wheelchair access
  • Will install auditory signals at red lights on the road; slopes on pavements, engravings on zebra crossing and on the edges of railway platforms for the blind.


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

deals with:

  • Qualified individual with a

    : 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".

  • Reasonable

    : 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.

Knowledge Associates

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