Inclusive India, Part II: Seeing the Big Picture

In a continuation of my previous blog post, I want to explore the ways in which individual corporations employing people with disabilities can influence their industries.

Employment statistics are quantifiable, but how can we understand and assess the empathy at the core of our mission? When working closely with corporations (as Youth4Jobs and other livelihoods-focused organizations do), how can we ensure that our values are upheld by these partners? And in the corporate sector, how can one support an inclusive workforce while retaining a business perspective?

As it turns out, these are part and parcel of sustainable corporate success. To learn more about the overarching goals of inclusive employment efforts in corporations, I consulted with Ferose V.R. He is an authority on inclusion in India from several perspectives, not the least being that he is the founder of the India Inclusion Foundation and the India Inclusion Summit. This annual meeting of people with disabilities and allies is in its sixth year, providing a free platform to share ideas and inspirations with an international audience.

A portrait of Ferose in a suit, standing with his arms crossed and facing toward his right, smiling widely.
Ferose V.R. (Photo courtesy of SMG)

As Senior Vice President and Head of Globalization Services at SAP SE, Ferose has also steered his company and others to implement inclusive hiring practices. His core belief has become a rallying cry for inclusive hiring: “Everybody is good at something.” Investing in what we’re good at (rather than unsuccessfully pursuing outdated expectations) creates solutions to persistent problems. This led to the employment of hundreds of people with disabilities within his company and similar movements within global corporations.

Most importantly, Ferose is the father of a young son on the autism spectrum who inspires him to create an inclusive society. His experience living and working in the U.S. and India gives him a special perspective on the experiences of people with disabilities in both societies. His website is a treasure trove of writings and talks on inclusion, as well as his personal story. Ferose kindly shared his thoughts on some big questions here.

Priya Charry: Thank you for being open to a short interview! I have a few questions on the theme of inclusion on a corporate level, drawing on your experience in India and the U.S.

How do we begin to educate corporates on the benefits of hiring employees with disabilities? What approach did you take within your own company?

Ferose VR: We need to clearly articulate the value proposition of hiring people with disabilities. It is not to be charitable, but to also realize business value. Then we need leaders to lead by example. The only way to educate anyone is to lead by example. I am a strong believer that “we should lead by the power of our example and not by example of our power.” When leaders lead, people follow. Once we have early success, we can then build structures and process to scale.

PC: The benefits of employing people with disabilities are clear, but the greater social effects are harder to quantify. Can we measure the change in social attitudes toward people with disabilities in India?

FVR: The soft things are the hard things! Not every benefit can be measured and sometimes the intangible ones are the most impactful. While we should focus on clear outcomes, we cannot underestimate the impact of making people more compassionate. The three universal truths are compassion, dignity and equity. Everywhere across the world, people are fundamentally compassionate; [they] want to live with a sense of dignity and want equity (fairness). This applies to people with disabilities as well. We should be careful that we don’t only speak about people with disabilities. We should include everyone in the discussion. Sometimes, preventing exclusion is more important than creating inclusion!

PC: Have your experiences of American attitudes toward disability influenced the inclusion work you’re doing in India, and how? And vice versa (Indian attitudes influencing work in US)?

FVR: Absolutely. America (and U.K.) is one of the frontrunners in the disability movement. There is a long practice of providing equal opportunity for everyone. This is practiced in letter and spirit. There are many best practices that can be learnt and emulated from the U.S. in India. Providing free services to children with disability (including relief hours for parents) is so fundamental to providing the basic needs. We have to look holistically at all the problems—from advocacy to awareness; from early intervention to education; from employment to assisted living. We have to look at all the dimensions.

PC: How can the US and India work together to increase support for disability advocacy in both places?

FVR: There are things that we can learn from both the countries. U.S. is far ahead in terms of awareness and acceptance. They have a progressive disability law and have used technology very effectively. U.S. is fueled by innovation and so is ahead in terms of adoption of new techniques and methods in the disability space. From an India standpoint, our community model is deeply ingrained in our culture. A family comes together to help/serve a person with disability (though not always). We have a long way to go in raising awareness and acceptance, especially in rural India.

PC: You’ve written on “the power of good intentions” to solve difficult problems. However, good intentions aren’t enough on their own. In what ways can we hold ourselves accountable to ensure that good intentions are followed by good actions?

FVR: I agree, good intentions alone are not good enough. It needs to be backed with strategic thinking and good execution. But good intentions are the baseline. Imagine, bad intentions coupled with strategic thinking and good execution can create a monster!

In terms of actions, my realization is that there are three stages: sympathy, empathy, and compassion. People act only when they reach the compassion zone. When people are in the sympathy and empathy phases, their actions are short-termed. Real change happens when a person has moved to the compassion zone. That’s when there is sustained long-term action.

PC: Do you have any advice for young people in India on how to tackle issues as big as disability rights on a national level?

FVR: The topic is very complex and has multiple layers. I have spent the last seven years trying to understand the topic and it is complex. The more you do, the more you realize how much more needs to be done. I think everyone needs to start small. Take one small action every day and that is good way to start. None of these problems can be solved overnight. I think many people want to make a difference and contribute in a positive manner, but they get overwhelmed by how deep the issues are. So start small, but make a start. As they say, the first step is sometimes more difficult than the the next 500!

Ferose speaking on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, the “ability in disability.” This video and more can be found on Ferose’s website.

Many, many thanks to Ferose for sharing his wisdom and inspiring myself and others to push forward in our inclusion work. In addition, thanks to Jaideep Rao of Know Your Star for the connection to Ferose.

Priya is a librarian and artist passionate about connecting people with life-changing knowledge, resources, and experiences. She has a master's degree in library and information science, and has worked in public and academic libraries, archives, and arts institutions. As an undergraduate, she spent a semester in Hyderabad studying Indian literature and culture. Her graduate research includes rural Indian libraries, Indo-Caribbean library systems, digital libraries, and services to underrepresented communities. Prior to the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Priya worked as a reference librarian at the Boston Public Library and as a library and archives assistant at Harvard University. She also volunteered as a youth mentor and has played in a variety of world music ensembles. In her free time she enjoys running, cycling, book and paper arts, and exploring her community through food and music. Priya is motivated by the belief that everyone can benefit from community-driven education and public programming, from the neighborhood to the national level. She is excited to join Youth4Jobs in their newest venture and connect young artists of all abilities to allies and employment.

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