“Learn and Earn” Transforming Lives of India’s Intellectually Challenged

by M-R Abraham | Ashoka India
Tuesday, 7 June 2016 12:19 GMT

AMBA's data center in Bangalore, India

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During one of her many years serving on the board for Special Olympics Bharat, Sugandha Sukrutaraj met a young wheelchair athlete.

The 14-year-old was paralyzed from the waist down because of hydrocephalus (water retention in the brain) as a child. During all the practice runs, he came in last. But at the Special Olympics National Games, when the cameras were pointed at him, he won a gold medal. The honor buoyed his family to treat the suddenly famous teen well. But after a while, his relatives returned to their earlier poor treatment. When the boy developed a medical complication, the family transported him to the hospital. 

“He died on a scooter at a traffic signal, screaming in pain,” Sukrutaraj recalled. “I never want to see that with another child.” 

The boy’s tragic experience triggered her dedication to the intellectually challenged in India. In 2004, Sukrutaraj founded AMBA. The Bangalore-based organisation transforms their lives by training them for jobs. This “learn and earn” model leads to a sustainable livelihood. 

But it’s not just about jobs. AMBA’s larger vision is to change the general mindset about adults with moderate to severe intellectual disability. This is especially important in a country such as India where social stigma often forces families to hide away intellectually challenged children and adults where they languish in obscurity and neglect. AMBA believes that their economic empowerment not only gives them a life of dignity but compels people to see them differently: productive members of society. 

For her game-changing and scalable social innovation, Sukrutaraj was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2007. 

India counts about 3 percent of its population as having an intellectual disability. That’s 35 million people. In India, these disabilities arise much less from genetics than from prenatal or postnatal complications, according to Sukrutaraj.

An intellectual disability is usually much less apparent than a physical disability such as blindness or a missing limb. It’s characterised by an IQ less than 80. But Sukrutaraj focuses on those who cannot function independently (IQ less than 65) and cannot work in a mainstream job because of limited mental development and lack of social skills. 

What the intellectually challenged lack in reasoning capacity, they make up for with a focused dedication to repetitive work. The kind of repetition inherent in data entry. And with data entry increasingly becoming automated, the opportunity for specialized work lies in the final audit of that data. 

But how to teach this to someone who may never have used, let alone seen, a computer? 

Sukrutaraj, whose professional experience was in the aviation and IT industries, had no formal training working with the intellectually challenged. She looked through books but they were all for children with a normal IQ or intellectually disabled children with a higher IQ at the outset. So she analysed the processes of data entry and found she could teach it through games. Games that focused on matching names, colors, flowers -- and no activity more than 15 minutes long. 

“I looked at (the intellectually challenged) objectively,” Sukrutaraj explained. “I was not carrying any pre-conceived notions. I saw them for who they are.” 

What results are diligent and newly confident workers who have a 100 percent accuracy in data entry. The intellectually challenged workers at AMBA provide services for companies ranging from telecommunications to power services. Companies contracting with AMBA fulfill their CSR requirement and pay no overhead, only the cost of filling out a data form. The money goes directly to the worker, making them earning members of their families, potentially up to Rs. 20,000 per month.

This also empowers the workers, many of whom proudly declare “I earn” or “I am an IT professional.” Further empowering them is that they train each other and the workflow is supervised by an intellectually challenged person. The normally abled staff is present only to support the enterprise. 

AMBA employs about 150 intellectually challenged people at its center. More than a hundred are on a waiting list to join, most referred by local medical centers (for example, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) and other NGOs. 

Rosie is one of the workers at AMBA. The 31-year-old has four siblings, all having intellectual disabilities. She is the sole breadwinner for the family, earning Rs. 10,000 per month. 

“I do data entry,” Rosie said with an unwavering smile, sitting in front of her computer. “I can do seventy forms in a day. I have friends, so many friends (here).” 

Sukrutaraj patented the curriculum she developed which allows people like Rosie to learn these computer skills. And it has allowed AMBA to scale its model across the country. The training is offered free of cost. An NGO sends to Bangalore a special education instructor along with two intellectually challenged people for six days of training in the curriculum. This allows the learning to happen back at the NGO’s center through the intellectually challenged to their peers.

To date, 203 centers from 19 states have taken the training. Just recently, all 300 centers in Kerala signed up for the program. The hope is to reach all of India’s 1,200 centers in the next decade. 

Sukrutaraj’s more immediate goal is to create a residential campus in Bangalore in the next two years. She plans to have several units, each comprising 26 intellectually challenged persons, with parents taking rotating shifts to stay with their children and their peers. This further ensures their safety, since according to Sukrutaraj, “they are very vulnerable to abuse.” She also plans to have a home for the elderly on the campus. Many of the parents are older and the stigma of having a child with a mental disability has ostracized them from society. 

“I’m planning to seek support from the Prime Minister,” Sukrutaraj said. “The responsibility is too huge for AMBA to carry alone.” 

AMBA is also piloting a program to reach the intellectually challenged at a younger age, partnering with a school in North Bangalore, to teach the curriculum to children ages 5 to 15. This allows all the learning to be spread over the childhood years with the goal of beginning work at the legal age of 16. 

Whether these children or the workers at AMBA -- who range in age from 18 to 43 -- Sukrutaraj affectionately calls them all “kids.” 

“They look like grownups outside, but they are babies inside,” she said. “I am hooked on them.” 

M-R Abraham is Storyteller in Residence at Ashoka India.