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Blind spa, deaf couriers: India and disabled rights

At a foot spa above a children's playschool in the winding backstreets of north Mumbai, Anand's busy thumbs and fingers press and pull on the soles of a client, as light, relaxing music fills the air.

In a cramped office in the south of the city, an ancient air-conditioner clanks noisily as six women quietly fill in slips of paper to accompany packages to be delivered by their male colleagues who wait patiently nearby.

The everyday scenes could be from any firm or office anywhere in the world, except at the Metta spa and the Mirakle Couriers, all the employees are either blind or deaf.

Both companies are giving new opportunities to some of the estimated 40-90 million disabled people in India, who have long been among the most excluded and stigmatised in society.

A World Bank report published in 2007 found that disabled adults in India were much less likely to be employed than the general population, with just over a third, or 38 percent, in work.

Harnessing the "untapped potential" of disabled people would not only benefit them but the country as a whole, contributing to India's economic growth, the study suggested.

But activists say that despite the existence of disability legislation and strong commitments to improving the situation, implementation of diversity policies is still piecemeal across the public and private sector.

For Jenny Figueiredo, an energetic former nurse who set up Metta in January, and Dhruv Lakra, who separately began Mirakle Couriers in October 2008, there is no reason not to employ disabled people.

"All they're asking is to be treated normally," said Figueiredo, 48, a trained yoga teacher, Thai masseuse and reflexologist who sold some of her jewellery to finance the venture.

Lakra, who used just 500 dollars in savings to get his company off the ground, agreed.

"The whole perception (in India) is that they (disabled people) are useless," said the 28-year-old former Merrill Lynch employee, who has a masters in business administration from Britain's Oxford University.

"Deafness is considered a curse rather than something you can do something about. But deaf people are productive and constructive. They can stand on their own two feet."

The first floor treatment room at Metta, with its bamboo blinds, polished white floor tiles, pot plants and pervading scent of coconut oil, is like any other spa.

The only discernible difference is the eight young staff, dressed in white polo shirts, green trousers and long green aprons, who move cautiously, reaching for door frames or the edges of the five beds to orientate themselves.

The soothing calm is broken by the sound of the staff's "talking watches" telling them a client's time is up.

At Mirakle Couriers, the buzz of office chatter takes place in sign language or text message.

Metta's chatty receptionist Monica has been blind in her left eye from an inoperable cataract since birth. She said she hoped the spa would help people realise that "blind people can do many things".

Many blind people were employed as switchboard operators until mobile phones put them out of work. A six-month reflexology course taught by Figueiredo gave them the chance of a new direction and a regular monthly salary.

"We're doing a job. We work with computers and do different massages. Some people say blind people can't work but we're not now dependent on others," said the 24-year-old, who comes from Darjeeling, in northeast India.

"That makes us happy."

Jyoti, who uses a hearing aid and speaks clearly in English, came to the company after a back office data processing job at a large IT firm in the southern city of Bangalore. The job, she says, was uninspiring and poorly paid.

Now, as she deals with staff issues and the day-to-day running of the company, she has found a new lease on life.

"I found I could stand on my own two feet. It made me see life differently, to be dependent on no one for my own money. I've grown very strong and confident on my own. I've got the world at my feet," she said.

For Figueiredo and Lakra, integration and independence for disabled people are the main goals as they look towards future expansion -- along with progress towards tackling ignorance and prejudice.

Mirakle Couriers already has contracts with some big corporate firms. Each delivery comes with a slip of paper with examples of Indian sign language gestures and a simple message: "Delivered and sorted by deaf adults."

Metta's reputation is spreading by word of mouth after little or no advertising.

The two entrepreneurs see no reason why other companies shouldn't follow their example in employing people with disabilities.

"They should have an open mind and look to these people as a business potential," said Lakra.

Additional Information

Country: India
Website: http://rcdisabilities.blogspot.com/2009/06/blind-spa-deaf-couriers-india-and.html
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When: 29/6/2009

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