Individuals with intellectual disabilities have mostly faced the hostile, ignorant end of society, with few patches of empathy sewn through. But, even just empathising with the intellectually disabled may not be enough. There is much more that we can do for them. Dr. Madhumati Puri, a specialist in genetics research with All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), realised this long back and decided to impart life skills to those with an intellectual disability. The skills would have to be such that they can become self-sufficient and do not have to depend on others for a livelihood.
In 1992, she started an organisation by the name of Society for Child Development, and in 2000, exactly eight years later, she started teaching young adults, with intellectual disabilities, specialised skills and vocational courses. But the road was full of challenges. The first challenge for her was to find jobs that would be simple enough to perform for the intellectually disabled and be able to produce goods that were economically viable. The second challenge was to gain access to raw materials that would be freely available in terms of quantity, and people who would be willing to provide the skill development courses and funds.
This need for access to cheap raw materials led to the idea of “From Trash to Cash”. The aim was divided into two steps: ‘deconstructing’ wastes from different places, and ‘reconstructing’ them into goods of market value. Depending upon the kind of fabric, newspapers, CDs, etc. that came as wastes from different factories, they produced a wide range of products including bags, book covers and wooden lamps. After the collaboration with Walmart 5-6 years back, export of products begun, partly to the United States, and mostly to Europe.
To bring about a product for Holi, Dr. Puri hired individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities to procure all waste flowers from nearby temples and 5-star hotels, which would further be processed to make powdered colours. The brand of colours was named Avacayam. The colours are being sold at Walmart stores across India and are currently a hotselling product, making an impact on hundreds of lives.
Among the 150 people presently working in the Delhi centre, around 50 are women. Dr. Puri assures that the percentage is higher in other areas like Varanasi, where many women, who are disabled themselves or are mothers of specially-abled kids, are working from home. There around 70% of the workers are women. Dr. Madhumita Puri has succeeded in inspiring many other NGOs around India, the foremost being the Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group based in Pune, who have started the Safe Holi campaign. Regarding other groups coming into this arena, she says, “In the beginning, I used to feel very threatened by it. But lately I feel that the more people come in, the more people will be inspired to bring a change in their consumer choice and move towards organic products.”
Dr. Puri’s work has been recognised by the UN which awarded her the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) Disability-Inclusive Entrepreneurial Business of the Year in 2013. Avacayam and many other great products made just from trash by intellectually disabled individuals present a marvellous simile. What society perceived as useless and inconsequential and shunned them out like garbage, the initiative by Dr. Puri showed that they are valuable. It has proved that trash can be a miraculous elixir for those ignored by society and equip those with intellectual disabilities, a plethora of capabilities.
DEBARATI CHOUDHURY | TOC
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