Enhancing the lives of persons with disabilities, Meenu Bhambhani of Mphasis

5-6% of India’s population has some or the other form of disability, of these only 1% or so are employed. Mphasis an IT services company wanted to change this scenario. Meenu Bhambhani, the VP and CSR head of Mphasis, who has been instrumental in this says, “I joined the company in 2007 when the company was looking for a CSR head and also for someone who could manage Diversity and Inclusion function as well. Coming from a disability background, I started my journey with a twin-track approach – working internally with staffing training and admin team to increase the number of employees with disabilities and bringing about systemic changes through equal opportunity policy, reasonable accommodation and working towards making built and technology environment accessible. We also used CSR grant making strategically to pilot solutions that address barriers faced by people with disabilities in leading a life of dignity.”

Mphasis started with Project Communicate in 2007, in partnership with the Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre (DEOC) to train and provide employment support to candidates with disabilities. This program became an industry benchmark and most IT companies till today continue to work with train and hire model. The culmination of this program was through train the trainer and enablement of other organisations to prepare the employable pool of youth from underserved communities. This led to Mphasis partnering with Headstreams in 2009 and the launch of Aalamba programme which targeted youth from low socio-economic backgrounds, who do not attend school or college. The objective was to reach out to over 300 youth directly, with employment and skill training (BPO or trade skills) and job-information exchange. 30 of the brightest youth from these groups would be selected for intensive mentoring and entrepreneurship development program. The programme also focussed on their financial inclusion by giving them training in finance, financial products, getting them access to banking through bank accounts, loans, credit system, among others. By 2014 the programme had evolved into training over 3000 youth and set up of 163 livelihood units

Out of the Aalamba programme came the Arivu programme. Many of the beneficiaries wanted their children to access English medium education, and the programme enabled them to access this through government schools. Arivu which means ‘Knowledge’ focuses on improving English reading and comprehension for children in Karnataka middle schools (Grades VI to VIII).

Around 2015, taxi services like Ola and Uber were becoming ubiquitous. And, Mphasis realised that transport was a huge challenge to persons with disabilities. Even if they had jobs reaching their workplace was an arduous task as public transportation remains disability unfriendly. This led them to tie up with Uber. The plan envisaged converting 50 cabs to be disability-friendly. “However, the issue of providing accessible taxi/cabs is rife with several regulatory and policy barriers which make it prohibitive to even venture into this area. While there is a Central Motor Vehicles Act that guides the federal entities to operate within the guidelines set by the Act, each State’s Road Transport Authority interprets these guidelines in their own way. We straightway ran into problems. The RTO rejected the vehicle saying that no modifications can be made to a commercial vehicle. We stayed with it for two years till we got approval,” says Meenu. Mphasis and Uber were not creating anything new as the technology was already there, the cost was primarily the cost of the cars, modification and training of drivers. The services, UberAccess and UberAssist, emerged out this initiative and has been a boon not only to persons with disabilities but also the elderly.

A challenge that the speech and hearing-impaired face is communication with the world. To help them, Mhpasis has partnered with academic institutions such as IIIT Bangalore where it has set up a centre of excellence in cognitive computing. The centre has developed a technology that enables speech to sign language. Another project involves the prevention of child trafficking using heterogeneous information sources to derive intelligence. On the entrepreneurship front, Mphasis collaborates with institutions like IIM Bangalore’s NSRCEL and Villgro in IIT Chennai. It also collaborates with NASSCOM Social Innovation Forum and the Nudge Foundation’s N/Core for incubation purposes.

Disability is an area that the company feels strongly about and so involves itself into policy advocacy too. What Mphasis can do would always remain small. To create an impact at a larger scale with a lasting impact requires intervention at the policy level. For instance, railway stations, Bus stands, airports are all government owned, and improvements can only be brought about through policy changes. “With smart cities being promoted, inclusive policies can bring about an impact right from the start. So, if disability inclusion is already added in procurement policy, then the documents will include disability-friendly designs and construction will happen accordingly,” says Meenu.

Mphasis has been supporting NCPEDP (National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled) people for many years. Along with NCPEDP, Mphasis recognised that the laws relating to people with disabilities had many lacunae and did not comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Sustained and strong advocacy along with NCPEDP has led to a new Rights of People with Disabilities (RPWD) Act. The new Act empowers people with disabilities. Mphasis’ sustained efforts led to it winning the Zero Project Award at the UN recently. According to Meenu, “Changes are now becoming visible on the ground, and several PILs have been filed to make government accountable. One outcome has been that the Delhi government is now procuring disable friendly buses.”

Many actions undertaken by Mphasis with a strong focus on persons with disability has led to significant improvement in their lives. Mphasis has aided the disability inclusion through various means — helping provide education, training, employment, transportation, policy changes and improved lives. A disabled friendly CSR strategy built around personal experiences of Meenu Bhambhani has been the nucleus of its programmes.

Based on a conversation with, Dr Meenu Bhambhani, Vice President & Head – Corporate Social Responsibility, Mphasis

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