There are nearly 2.7 crore disabled people in India as per the 2011 Census. The disabilities could be in sight, speech, hearing, mental illness, or other physical disabilities. Of this, over 50 lakh people are hearing impaired. They are either entirely deaf or have hearing aides.
With more awareness regarding disabilities, there has been an improvement in the facilities provided for the deaf people in India. Schools, special sports organisations like the All India Cricket Association of the Deaf, etc. have been formed. But these are still not enough to cater to all the people
Even with centres like the All India Central Government Deaf Employees Association (AICGDEA), National Association of the Deaf (NAD) providing services like training, employment opportunities, support and help, many are left behind. Nearly 30 lakh of the 50 lakh people do not have access to jobs. Even if we consider children and senior citizens, it is still a significant number of unemployed people.
At such a time, a young woman decided that something needs to be done to change the situation. Smriti Nagpal took the bold step to start her organisation, Atulyakala. It is India’s first and only lifestyle brand run by deaf designers and team.
Inspiration for Atulyakala
Smriti grew up with two older siblings who were both deaf. As a result, she learnt to sign before she could speak. At 16, she started volunteering and working with the hearing impaired community. Over the course of her volunteer work, she realised that the education facilities, employment opportunities, and general integration into the society for deaf people were bad.
As she was wondering what to do, she had a chance meeting with Amit. He was working as a manual labourer at an NGO. But he has a Masters of Fine Arts Degree from a top college in the country. Inspired by his talent and moved by his situation, Smriti’s brain fired into action. She decided to start a lifestyle brand entirely designed and produced by deaf artisans and designers. And thus Atulyakala was born in 2013 in a small office in Delhi.
It is a small group of fifteen employees, of whom 12 are deaf. The dedication the team has shown is clearly visible in the results today. Atulyakala now has branches in Denmark and Portugal run entirely by deaf employees. They have amassed more than 20,000 customers globally. And the best part? The profits from the sales go back into the community. So far, they have been able to impact over 40,000 people. They hold sessions on Indian Sign Language (ISL), art workshops and other events conducted by the deaf artists and interpreters.
Atulyakala also has a training centre in Delhi where they train 100 students. Apart from academics, they also learn art, theatre, and graphic design. The teachers are hearing impaired too. They conduct classes twice a week.
The Logical Indian spoke to Smriti and Aanchal, Atulyakala’s Business Head. Here are the excerpts of the interview.
Do you plan to collaborate with other schools/institutes to expand the programme?
Yes. We will continue to work with corporate offices, schools, colleges and NGOs for creating more impact and spreading awareness about sign language as well as deaf culture.
The idea behind having all these events is to build a space for the deaf artists to show their talent to the world. We hope that seeing them on stage will inspire others with disabilities to share their gifts with the world too. Such events also act as a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities.
What were the challenges while building the company?
We started the company with only three people. Since we knew we wanted to employ deaf people, the ‘who-to-hire’ problem solved itself. Initially finding deaf graphic designers was tough. We knew many who had the artistic abilities. But, not many had the technical skills required. But now we are sorted on that front.
Funding was a huge issue, and Atulyakala has been bootstrapped for the past three years. The sales of our products picked up, but we felt the need to revamp our product lines. Training our staff has not been much of an issue thankfully. All our deaf employees are highly seasoned and experienced, with 15+ years of expertise in some cases.
What are the plans for future?
Apart from being India’s first deaf-run lifestyle brand, we plan to be the world’s first brand with a sign language typeface. In January, we are launching a new collection called ‘Signs’ inspired by the Indian Sign Language. Consumers will be able to learn a bit just by having a look at the product! We will also be increasing our presence in the markets of the United States and Dubai.
Was it easier to break into the international market as opposed to the Indian market?
Breaking into the international market was possible as the sensitivity and awareness in western countries are much higher than in India. Almost everyone knows the basics of sign language which makes it easier for the ordinary citizens to communicate with their deaf counterparts.
The European consumers care about the origin of the product. They want to know the brand’s story, who made it and in what conditions. They look beyond the price tag and the appearance. I think such a shift in the thought process is essential in all the markets around the world if we want to combat the problems of sweatshop labour, low wages, workplace inequality, fast fashion, etc. to move towards a future of sustainability.
Where can we find the products in India?
You can purchase the products across brick n mortar stores in India and on our website www.atulyakalaindia.com
In a short span of time, they have amassed a great recognition. India-Africa Young visionaries fellowship in 2014, Rex Karmaveer Global Fellowship 2014-15, Hero Sunday Standard Devi of Innovation Award, and more recently the Nelson Mandela – Graca Machel Innovation Award (Youth) in 2016.
Atulyakala has also participated in The Vault Show, a platform for entrepreneurs to obtain funding from investors.
This feature is in association with The Vault Show. The Logical Indian aims to bring the stories of more young and inspiring Indian entrepreneurs.
You can watch The Vault Show every Saturday at 7.30 PM on ET Now and Sunday at 12.30 PM on Times Now.