In India, people with disabilities are either looked-down upon, seen with sympathy or made fun of. Rarely people go beyond these actions. Mahima, in the weekly column, interviews Meera Shenoy, Founder of Youth4Jobs Foundation that is changing lives of disabled youth by making them self-reliant. A Different Truths exclusive.
What do you see, when you look at me?
A destitute? A needy? Or a broken tree?
What do you see when you look at me?
A nightmare of society? Or a child of pity?
No matter how strong be the challenge
Not ashamed of my disability, I will fight…
With destiny, I will fight,
To live each day with delight!
I penned the above words when my brother’s camera captured a courageous man participating in BSF Half Marathon in New Delhi recently. The man had no lower limbs. This man was writing history.
And so is Meera Shenoy, whom I take you to meet today. Meera left no stone unturned to make the disabled youth believe and practice:
I am a fighter, I am brave
So will always ride life’s highest wave,
I am an invincible spirit,
Whose rise to freedom lies within!
Meera’s NGO ‘Youth4Jobs Foundation’ has been conferred upon this year’s ‘National Award for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan)-2017’. The award was presented to her by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind and Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Thaawarchand Gehlot on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on 3rd December, this year.
Not only this, Youth4Jobs Foundation has also been awarded the ‘Best Placement Agency’ for their innovative work in training and placing youth with disability in corporate jobs, earlier this month in Bengaluru.
So why this shower of awards? What is Youth4Jobs? We learn that and more from Meera in this interview.
Meera Shenoy: Thanks, Mahima, it feels great since Youth4Jobs Foundation is like my second child and the mother is overwhelmed since the baby is not only growing up beautifully but winning accolades for its work. These awards will go a long way in ensuring that more and more youth will come to us and get trained…learn to harness their inner power. And also give a boost to the team effort at Y4J.
Meera Shenoy: Youth4Jobs Foundation is a mission that has successfully trained and placed youngsters with disabilities in sectors like automobile, gems & jewellery, manufacturing, gaming, retail, front desk jobs, and many more. It has skilled over 11,500 disabled people in its 21 training centres in twelve states of India. Out of these 65 percent have been placed in good positions in over 200 companies countrywide. The youth who do not choose to work in private sector jobs apply for government jobs where there is a reservation. So, even if they have failed the government exam, after training by Youth4Jobs training, they pass them easily. And these youth with disabilities are even from remote and unreached villages.
Meera Shenoy: I worked in business media – print and later TV. Many of the stories took me to the villages. At a point in my life, I wasn’t satisfied capturing these stories on paper or camera. I wanted to do something beyond. Unexpectedly I got this offer to set up the country’s first skilling mission for the rural development department of the Andhra Pradesh government, called the Employment Generation & Marketing Mission (EGMM). After six years of setting up and leading EGMM, there was no looking back. After EGMM, I decided to move into the next phase of my life – to set up Youth4Jobs, in 2012. Youth4Jobs focusses on setting up placement linked training centres for youth with disabilities. It also acts as a one-stop shop for companies for inclusion. These include a range of services from sensitisation workshops to developing job role matrix, adapting the workplace, doing accessibility audit etc.
Meera Shenoy: Disability was chosen for several reasons: (a) 80% of the world’s disabled population is in developing countries like India. So any positive impact has an effect not just on India but the world. (b) Studies show there is a close connection between disability and poverty. (c) In India barely 0.1% are linked to organised sector jobs. Thus, we decided to bring our own mantra to work, ‘Hire disabled youth as their talent will help your business, don’t hire them out of sympathy.
Meera Shenoy: We decided not to look at low hanging fruit but focus on youth with disabilities from unreached villages, since this is the real India. And also at least 30% should be girls since the condition of girls with disability in villages is absolutely dismal. The work was more challenging than I ever imagined. Youth with disabilities were widely distributed in the villages – locating them was not easy. Their parents and the local community believed they were not capable of working. Thus, one such case close to my heart is that of Kiran from Surat. She is visually impaired. Kiran’s family migrated from Bihar to Surat to work in the mills. Her father lost his job and her mother was plagued with ill health. Kiran was always told to “shut up” as she was a girl and blind. She took one year off and worked to pay her tenth standard fees. She heard about the Youth4Jobs training centre in Surat and enrolled, despite her father’s loud protests. After the two months training, we struggled to get her a job locally. No one wanted a visually impaired and a girl! After considerable persuasion, we placed her with one of the large retailers. I took her to an international retreat in Ahmedabad. It was simply amazing. The job had given her new confidence and a voice – she was now the only earning member of a family drawing about a lakh annually.
Meera Shenoy: Yes, till our tax exemptions were in place, we had to manage with a shoestring budget. We also were clear that we wanted to build, slowly but surely, a template for scale. So we spent a year on building this model and validating it. But, we find senior government officers understand but the junior staff who assess and monitor the program have no sensitivity to our understanding of disability. So, we share our work to influence them. I sit on some of the governing bodies to ensure that the right message goes across. For transparent and professional organisations like us, the company CSR Act helps us with CSR funds. Now we have some other funder-partners as well.
Mahima: A Psychology graduate and Philosophy postgraduate, wife of a London educated Subodh Shenoy, who has worked with projects associated with the UNESCO. What made you leave these comforts of life and live-out-of-the-suitcase?
Meera Shenoy: An accident of birthplace has made a large part of India different. We, the ones born with all means and comfort, are fortunate enough to try to make the ‘different part’ of India a better India. The work I do fills my life with joy. Just as much as it transforms the life of every disabled youth we train and opens a window for them to fly into the world of opportunities.
Impactful words and complementary actions that will go a long way in making the society a better place. No wonder, Meera is the only one from India to be nominated to the Happiness Hall of Fame, Stanford. It is here that the organisers called her the ‘Mother Teresa of Jobs.’ The name has stuck with her and many parents of the specially baled youth call her the same. Meera is a TedX Speaker who has been awarded the Shell-Helen Keller award and the World HRD Forum’s Woman Super Achiever award to name just a few.
And Meera did not stop at this, she has come out with a motivational book ‘You Can’ which has been a best-seller and is soon coming out in Hindi. Meera Shenoy is truly a different truth of the Indian society that has a long way to go in accepting the specially abled youth with open arms. The journey has just begun, but with a bang!
Photos sourced from the author
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A science graduate from Delhi University and MA in Mass Communication, Mahima began her career with E-Lexicon PR & Mutual PR and Hindustan Times. Soon, ANI (a collaboration with Reuters) got her aboard, where she spread her wings in TV, Print & Digital Journalism. In 2010 Rajdeep Sardesai’s flagship primetime show gave her, a dream job at CNN-IBN. From May 2017, she is a freelance journalist. She is a poet and a Sufi at heart.