What gift would you give to a visually-impaired child? Most of us would find ourselves browsing through shelves of Braille books, comparing prices of music players or looking for custom-made walking sticks for the blind. The rest would be as baffled as Prarthana and Prateek were when the couple was invited to a corporate event for visually-impaired kids. After gift-wrapping the music systems they had bought eventually, the duo pondered over a stereotypical pattern invisible to our fully potent eyes.
“When we hear about a person with a disability, why do we tend to focus on his/her disability instead of considering them as a human being, to begin with?” asks Prarthana, who started GiftAbled Foundation with her husband Prateek, to provide livelihood opportunities to differently-abled individuals who are considered a liability to the mainstream society. So far, they have successfully employed over 500 disabled persons, aside from creating widespread awareness to break the myths and stigma surrounding disability.
Fruit of 12 years of dedication: GiftAbled Foundation
Once a corporate employee working in IBM, Prarthana quit her job to devote herself towards the social sector entirely. For the past 12 years, she had actively volunteered with over a hundred non-profit organisations, when she discovered that disability as a social cause is given the least priority, primarily due to lack of awareness and age-old pitying attitude towards disabled people.
As per the latest census data of over 2 crores differently-abled Indians, hardly 1% are meaningfully employed. “You can often find a person with a disability holding an MBA degree, yet finding employment as a mere cashier in some small-scale organisation,’’ shares Prarthana, talking about the motivation behind starting GiftAbled.
“I remember about ten years ago, one day I was walking down the road when I saw a group of children pointing towards me and sharing a hearty laugh. Curious, I approached them and found out that they were not laughing at me, rather they were a bunch of hearing-impaired kids communicating in sign language. I realised how little we know about the world of these kids, and that’s when I decided to learn sign language,’’ narrates Prarthana.
“When I started attending sign language lessons, the questions I faced were if I was deaf or if anyone in my family was deaf. Even now it is unimaginable to learn something specifically designed for differently-abled people,” she adds, “While most are busy debating about the insensitivity of the terms we use to designate disabled persons, I felt we ought to do more work at the ground level.”
In 2013, they launched GiftAbled Foundation with the aim to secure employment to the physically and intellectually disabled people, as well as to sensitise the mass about disability.
Livelihood programme by GiftAbled
Before launching GiftAbled, Prarthana and Prateek met with beneficiaries across different organisations, to have a better understanding of their everyday problem. “What we realised that once they are undergoing rehabilitation therapy, no one is thinking about including them in any productive activities,” explains Prarthana.
They came across a girl who used to be a Bharatnatyam dancer until an accident left her wheelchair-bound with a severe spinal cord injury. Yet, she managed to earn her own living by making cosmetic jewellery. “Her indomitable zeal led us to believe that others like her can also be trained to be a part of the working population,” shares Prarthana.
Today GiftAbled provides vocational and skill-development training to specially-abled adults, and the handicraft products made by them are marketed to corporate organisations and among the general public.
“We are trying to create opportunities for them not out of sympathy, but empathy,” clarifies Prarthana, while talking about their highly popular wooden carvings which are sculpted intricately by one physically-challenged artisan and polished by another who is visually-challenged. Their exquisite craftsmanship leaves no trace of their disabilities on the beautiful pieces that adorn our living rooms. Innovative items like jute and ikkat laptop bags, multipurpose stands, watch-cum-pen-holders are in high demand among customers.
“When we met Jyoti, a hearing-impaired artist, she could describe the theme of her paintings to me using sign language. I felt that stories of overlooked artists like her need to be brought into the limelight,” shares a determined Prarthana.
Besides, GiftAbled is engaged with around 40 other non-profit organisations working in the disability sector, imparting skill-based training to the members and often outsourcing finished products from them. Recently, they have collaborated with an NGO working with autistic persons – who delivered around 300 handmade Rakhis, followed by a bulk order of tactile Rubik’s cubes, tic-tac-toe puzzles and toys for blind children. GiftAbled envisions an inter-dependent network of people with all types of disabilities, coming forward in aid of their counterparts.
In rural areas, the mothers with disabled children are often treated as a curse and disowned by the families. GiftAbled has worked with a group of such women in Koppal, who are now running successful businesses like tailoring shops, handicrafts stalls during festivals and carnivals etc.
Fostering inclusion: the GiftAbled motto
A hearing and speech-impaired pregnant woman lost her baby due to delay in delivery, only because she was unable to communicate her urgency to everyone around her. “This is just one of the hundreds of similar cases we get to hear on a regular basis,” Prarthana sighs. That is why the other aspect of GiftAbled is to generate disability awareness on a mass scale.
They have organised health awareness workshops for differently-abled women, where they have got their queries answered by medical experts on a one-to-one basis.
“There was one mother in Koppal who wished to get her daughter surgically sterilised because she was intellectually-disabled. Our doctors and experts intervened and restrained her from such a drastic step after explaining the severe consequences,” shares Prarthana, “This is the extent of awareness we are still lacking.”
GiftAbled conducts frequent disability awareness programmes in and around Karnataka.
With the help of expert designers, the foundation has innovated several first-of-its-kind academic essentials and tactile toys for the visually-challenged kids, including the launch of a tactile library, so that the Braille books cease to be boring. The blind children can actually interpret alphabets, pictures, maps, human body parts etc. by touch and feel. A set of maze puzzle books published by GiftAbled is a craze among the working adults as well, who regret not having such interactive opportunities for learning in their childhood.
This year, GiftAbled has started a free therapy centre in Tumkur for physically-challenged children from low-income families. Mothers who work as maids, fathers who work as labourers, grandfathers who work as porters – take time out of their sweat-stained days to take their kids to the Centre, armed with the hope that soon their boys or girls will smile, laugh and walk – just like other healthy children. GiftAbled is also planning to launch a mobile therapy unit for reaching out to more such families. Donate to GiftAbled’s therapy centre here.
The challenges they still face
Despite their laudable dedication, the couple behind GiftAbled find it hard at times to meet up their working capital requirements. Especially when procuring products from other NGOs, they have to pay them from their own savings, as the corporate buyers rarely deposit an advance payment.
Another major roadblock to expanding their amazing initiative happens to be the absence of professional product designers who are willing to devote their time for a comparatively less fee. “We are still waiting for someone with our vision to come on-board with us and improve our production,” expresses Prarthana.
Message for our readers
“We wish to urge everyone to support livelihood for disabled individuals, not out of pity or social obligation, but considering their skills and quality, just like any normal person,” Prarthana conveys her message for our readers.
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