I TOO CAN!

 

“The thought of launching this organisation started with me having a son who is dyslexic,” says Meenakshi Balasubramanian, Founder, Mutually Beneficial Activity (MBA) Foundation.

MBA Foundation is a charitable trust at Powai in Mumbai that works for the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities.

Meenakshi moved to Delhi with her family when her son Akhil was four years old. “We noticed that he had specific problems. He was not able to do simple things which other children of his age could do. I used to ask him why he can’t write the alphabet ‘c’ which is very simple. I kept comparing him with my other son who is five years elder to him. Some of Akhil’s milestones were delayed. He was not able to jump and lacked finer coordination. I never knew that he had a disability until he went to school. It was when his teacher complained about his inability to read and write like other children, did we realise that he was dyslexic,” says Meenakshi.

“My husband who visited London on an official trip heard about the British Dyslexia Association. His colleague helped him get some learning material, and I sought the help of a special educator to teach me to educate my son. Dyslexia was not much known 20 years ago and so I went from place to place trying to find out ways to help my son. Due to difficulty in reading, Akhil was given books of lower classes, although he was capable of understanding more. He felt frustrated and cursed himself saying, ‘why can’t I read like others, why can’t I do things like others?’ “Akhil had formal education until class 6 with a special examination paper which had only objective questions. He used to ask me, ‘Why should I tick the answers, when my friends are all writing?’ I could not answer!”

“When I visited Mumbai, I saw the new vocational training centre of the Spastics Society  at Chembur, and totally fell in love with it. I said to myself—If not academics, let him at least be trained in vocational activities. I moved to Mumbai along with Akhil, who was 15 years old then, while my husband continued to live in Delhi with his parents and my elder son was in Coimbatore studying engineering.” adds Meenakshi.

Dr. Mithu Alur, founder of Spastics Society observed Akhil for some time. She told Meenakshi that Akhil was not yet ready for vocational training, and that he needed more of education and school discipline. Akhil was enrolled in their school in Bandra where each class had only 6 to 8 children.  It was here Akhil had a new lease of life.

“When he saw the other children who were more disabled, he started to say ‘I can!’ He helped his spastic friends to eat, helped his teacher to hang the map, and was very active in his class. When I visited his class, I was disturbed as I wasn’t sure if Akhil who was an able bodied person would fit in here. I was concerned if the environment would affect him more. But instead, it had a very positive change in him,” says Meenakshi with a smile.

Meenakshi pursued a course at NIIT while in Chennai and worked at Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) as a computer trainer in Delhi for a short while. When she moved to Mumbai, CII offered her a similar posting here. But, she opted to work at the computer lab in Spastics society. “Dr. Alur said to me that CII will get a hundred Meenakshis’, but these children need me more. As a mother, I can understand these children. Therefore, I chose to work in Spastics Society,” she adds.

Meenakshi trained Youngsters with different kinds of disabilities including hearing and speech impairment, taught them computer education, and coordinated placement through CII. In the year 2000, National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People  awarded her with the Helen Keller award for her dedicated service in getting jobs for disabled persons in corporate houses. Recollecting the award, she says: “I would send the trained youngsters on internship to corporate houses like Essar, Mahindra and Mahindra, and many other companies with whom I have contacts. At first, they would be apprehensive to go, but after a week’s time they return happy as they would have experienced better working conditions in these companies.”

Meenakshi observed that most of the youngsters who were trained in tailoring, printing, and other areas of work were back in their homes doing nothing productive. She wanted to do something for them. She discussed her concerns with Dr Alur, and this set the beginning for a sheltered work shop for them.  A number of items were produced in the workshop by the children with help from their teachers, and a stipend amount was offered to them. At the end of three years, on completion of training, there were seven girls who needed a regular working place.

In the meanwhile, Akhil was progressing well in his studies and had completed his 8th standard. As the Maharashtra board had Marathi as a compulsory language to clear the SSC examination, Akhil found it difficult to learn a third language (he was already learning English and Hindi). Meenakshi introduced National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) which provides learner-centric quality school education in Spastics Society, and Akhil was the first student to enroll.

Meenakshi’s family have been very supportive of her efforts to educate Akhil.  Her husband Balasubramanian once said to her, “when Spastics Society provided an answer for our son to progress, why don’t you think of doing something for these youngsters?”

Meenakshi coordinated a survey in Mumbai and learnt that there were three or four institutions in and around Chembur that offered vocational training the disabled adults, but after a period of time they did not have a regular occupation. This was the similar situation for her seven students who had completed the vocational training. It was then she decided to launch a long-term programme for them. With the support of the parents of her seven students, she launched the MBA Foundation, which was inaugurated by Dr. Mithu Alur, Chairperson of Spastics Society.

One of the parents offered her flat to set up the workshop and all the parents contributed towards the renovation costs. “We worked on the budget and decided to charge a nominal amount as fees to meet the running expenses. We wanted it to be like an office for the youngsters. They would come and make things that they have been trained in, or are capable of, and we would assist them to market their products. We also decided to pay the children a stipend for their service,” says Meenakshi.

MBA Foundation was registered in December 2001, and is also registered under Society’s Act, Persons with Disabilities Act, and National Trust Act. “We made a decision not to specify our organisation to work with a specific segment of the disabled; hence we named it Mutually Beneficial Activities (MBA) Foundation with the mission— a life with self esteem and dignity for the disabled. When we have such a diverse group, we find that each one is able to contribute, and together the team is able to produce more effectively.” adds Meenakshi.

MBA has around 150 beneficiaries, networks with social organisations like Rotary club at Thane, and operates its programmes through four of its centres located at Powai, Chembur, Thane, and Gorai in Mumbai.

“The parents of the disabled  persons did not know what their children would do after their lifetime. NGOs did not have an answer either. This made us think ofa Life Care for such disabled persons who cannot be mainstreamed through employment, or who cannot live independently and lead a life with dignity and self esteem. Early childhood intervention and life care is offered through the centres at Powai and Gorai; and vocational training and day care is provided through all our four centres. The centres at Powai and Gorai provide residential care along with other rehabilitation activities,” says Meenakshi.

Adult education, training in communication and documentation, lamination, photocopying, telephone operation, and data entry are offered to the disabled youngsters in addition to making of products.  CEDAT—Centre for Executive Development Training Programme, offers a 6 months course for the educated but unemployed persons with disabilities to prepare them for mainstream jobs. They are trained in English, computer operations, personality development, and executive calibre. Since 2007, CEDAT has offered training in association with NASSCOM Foundation for five batches that comprises of 15 to 20 trainees in each batch. Most of them have been placed in organizations like TCS, HDFC, ADFC, and Aurionpro.

“Unlike in the past, corporate houses are sensitive and support charities. One should not go to a corporate and demand them for a job just because he is disabled. Instead, we should train the disabled suitably and find a job that matches their skill set,” says Meenakshi.

Recently, MBA Foundation has launched a section 25 company called ‘Dignity Foundation for GODS (Groups of Disabled)’ through which they market their own products as well as products made by similar NGOs and disabled persons who work from their homes. GODS make a variety of products like candles, snacks, gift items, chocolates, squashes, pickles, and household products like hand wash, phenyl, and incense sticks. Akhil has been trained to coordinate and market these products along with a few others.

“Being a parent I learnt a lot after dealing with my son. I had to be the occupational therapist, physiotherapist, counselor, and a special educator to be able to help my son. I never went to a special institution to learn, but underwent short term courses as a parent. I wish the parents’ group was stronger. We need to make them learn to behave with their own children,” concludes Meenakshi.

Box: “Our next plan is for parents who want to live with their disabled children. We are planning to launch group homes where rehabilitation and training facilities would be made available for people with disabilities, and activities would be planned for the family members,” says Balasubramanian, Chairman of MBA Foundation.

 

Box: Akhil, 35 years old, a dyslexic, leads the public relations for MBA Foundation.  He approaches clients, makes presentations, and follows up on product delivery. When asked about how he approaches the corporates, this is what Akhil said in a very confident tone:“I am not alone. I have my colleague Ravi Subramaniam who helps me in marketing. I first take an appointment in a company and go and meet the HR officer or the HR head.  I introduce myself and my organization and talk about the products we make. We then organize an exhibition in their venue and sell our products. We also invite them to our centre to see our activities.”

Ravi, an engineer by qualification, lost his short term memory due to an accident. After the necessary medical treatment, doctors opined rehabilitation and occupation for him. He joined MBA Foundation 5 years ago, got trained in coping with his memory problem, and became an ideal partner for Akhil. He now has a sharp memory, but has writing problems. Their complementary skills have helped them in advancing in the field of public relations.

Akhil further adds, “We have introduced a new scheme called ‘Friends of G.O.D.S club’, where a person pays Rs. 1500 a year to become a member. Each member chooses the products he wishes to receive and once in three months the products valued at Rs. 375 is supplied at their doorsteps. We have a detailed price list and have a lot of marketing schemes. We have bulk buyers (institutions, etc) who place regular orders, and we also sell our products in residential areas.”  

“We are not asking for donation, but instead creating jobs for our youngsters. Instead of buying somewhere else, we ask them to buy it from us! I want to work here even when I grow old, as I am very passionate towards the cause. I have to build up this organisation,” says a responsible Akhil.