Seeing the Ability in Disabilities

“People with disabilities are vulnerable because of the many barriers we face: attitudinal, physical, and financial. Addressing these barriers is within our reach and we have a moral duty to do so…… But most important, addressing these barriers will unlock the potential of so many people with so much to contribute to the world. Governments everywhere can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education, and employment—and never get the chance to shine.”

Stephen Hawking

During the AIF Midpoint Conference, I was excited to hear that I would be attending the “Understanding Disability Services, Collaborations and Life Changes” organized by the AIF’s own ABLE team in Mysore and Bangalore.  Ability Based Livelihood Empowerment (ABLE) trains persons with disabilities and facilitates their entry into the job market through advocacy, promoting inclusive growth in India.

I chose this theme because I was interested in learning more about services for people with disabilities in India. Growing up, my maternal grandmother was blind and I remembered the services that she was offered that allowed her to live on her own. She took care of her grandchildren, she cooked and cleaned and was able to live an independent lifestyle despite her disability. I also knew that the services and legislation in India would be different and I wanted to know what services NGOs were providing for the millions of people with disabilities in India.

Our group visited several sites; JSS Polytechnic in Mysore, Cheshire Homes in Bangalore, and EnAble India also in Bangalore. All of these institutions and NGOs provide specialized services so that people with disabilities can live fulfilling lives and contribute to the greater society. They work with The American India Foundation through its ABLE program. As the Steven Hawking quote states, people with disabilities have so much potential and so much to offer to the world and our society is responsible to ensuring that this potential is realized for all people.

Education for Disabled Youth at JSS Polytechnic for the Differently Abled in Mysore

We walked into the classroom and the students stood up to welcome us. Our guide explained to the class that we were only there to watch. We were American India Foundation Fellows, some from the U.S. and others from India. We would be touring their school and watching their lessons. The teacher invited us to come into the room and have a seat. We all walked to the empty seats in the back of the room. As we sat, one of the students immediately got out her phone and took a selfie with myself and another fellow in the background. For the second selfie, the two of us posed for the picture. This came as a surprise to her and she excitedly told her friend. The next selfie included both girls and two playful fellows. She smiled and laughed at us.

AIF Fellows speaking to a class at JSS Polytechnic in Mysore.


Students at JSS Polytechnic.

The classroom was vibrant. The 30 or so students were  all hearing impaired and were attending the JSS Polytechnic for the Differently Abled. JSS was established in 1987 and is named after his Holiness Jagadguru Sri Shivaratri Deshikendra Mahaswamiji, the 24th pontiff of Sri Suttur Math of Karnataka (JSS Group of Institutions, 2012). The school started with only 5 children and one teacher and has grown to serve 82 youth and 9 teachers (JSS Mahavidyapeetha, 2009). Designed to accommodate students who are differently abled, JSS Polytechnic includes ramps and wide doorways to accommodate wheel chairs, ATMs equipped with brail, computer software with dictation features, and other equipment to ensure that students have access to tools that will help them gain the skills to be competitive in the technology workforce.

JSS Polytechnic for the Differently Abled is the first institution of its kind in India designed to equip individuals who are differently abled to gain technical skills and confidence to seek mainstream technical careers. The goal is for children and youth to lead normal lives with the people in the society (Jss Group of Institutions, 2012). From the back of the room, we watched the teacher communicate with the thirty young people in sign language. They all wore navy blue uniforms and the girls sat on one side of the room and the boys sat on the other. They were eager to answer questions. They were learning calculus but it all looked like a foreign language to me. The teacher asked a question to our group as we sat in the back of the room. All of the students glanced back at us. We all looked perplexed. One of the fellows explained to the class that since we are “old” we really didn’t remember these things. The class laughed. It was the truth. I was amazed at the zeal of the students as they communicated in sign language in addition to understanding the intricacies of sin and cosin in their trigonometry class!

In a small group, the students shared with us that they were able to flourish because the teacher understood their needs and they were around other people who had similarities. This allowed them to gain confidence and independence. I believe that every person should have similar opportunities regardless of ability. This tour gave much insight on the needs being addressed in the education system for people with disabilities.

Cheshire Homes supports the Housing and Livelihood needs of People with Disabilities

The Fellows boarded the bus and began our 170-kilometer-trip from Mysore to Bangalore. We were exhausted from a day of tours and sessions but my mind was racing. The next day, we visited Cheshire Homes India which is a high quality residential care facility for severely disabled. In 2008, Cheshire Homes saw a need to start a Livelihood Resource Centre to empower persons with disability towards livelihood (Cheshire Disability Trust , 2013).  The mission of Cheshire Homes is “to change the national consciousness on Disability from Inability to Capability”. A presenter shared information  about the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016. She described the old approach to disabilities in India and how the person with a disability was assumed to be abnormal while society was considered normal. The new approach to people with disabilities assumes that each person has equal rights and society is considered to have the problem. She emphasized that the only way we can truly see equity is a universal design of systems that removes barriers for people with disabilities.

The American India Foundation has partnered with Cheshire Homes India-Bangalore through its Ability Based Livelihood Empowerment (ABLE) program and reached out to 520 youth with disabilities with skill development training, as a result of which 70% of them have found gainful employment.


Slide from presentation at Cheshire Homes that shows the chronology of disabilities legislation.


Slide from presentation at Cheshire Homes that shows the new approach to people with disabilities.


Slide from presentation at Cheshire Homes that shows the new approach to people with disabilities.


Slide from presentation at Cheshire Homes that shows equity for people with disabilities by creating a universal design for systems.


After her presentation, we witnessed a graduation where individuals with disabilities received certificates for completing livelihood training programs. Cheshire homes truly displayed this theory in action: All people deserve equal rights to education, housing, and employment regardless of ability and the partnership with the American India Foundation has added impetus to their efforts of creating employment opportunities for them. During our session we learned very basic sign language and were able to share our names with the group. It seemed that they really enjoyed our attempt to communicate in sign language.


EnAble India provides Vocational Services for People with Disabilities  

After Cheshire Home, we took a tour of Enable India. EnAble India is a dynamic non-profit organization founded in 1999 with the goal to empower disabled people towards economic independence and dignity by catering to the needs of all kinds of disabilities like visually impaired, hearing impaired, physically disabled, mental retardation, mental illness and more across India (EnAble India, 2017). Enable India works to house a pool of employable candidates, create a demand in companies and provide workplace solutions that enables people with disabilities to effectively work with dignity toward economic independence. One of the objectives of EnAble India is to “build the next generation of people with disabilities who are confident, assertive, smart and independent”.

We entered the building which looked like a very large office building with an open space lined with classrooms with very large windows. Our group was split up into several groups. Each group of about 3-4 fellows sat in on a class. In our class, there were about 12 visually impaired students. We introduced ourselves and took a seat in the back of the room. The instructor shared that today was a big day for the students. They would be sharing how they were empowered to perform routine tasks independently and the impact this had on them personally and their families. Students were encouraged to call their families so that families could be involved in the presentation.

AIF Fellows testing computer software at EnAble India that allows individuals to type without using hands.

The instructor pointed out that although the tasks seemed simple, it was a big deal for the students since oftentimes young people with disabilities are not encouraged to try new things and take risks which is an essential part of growing up, gaining confidence, learning new skills, and becoming independent. One student shared that she was able to do her laundry on her own. A young man shared how empowered he felt to call and Uber for himself and his father. Another young lady shared that she was not only able to pick out a dress at a local store, she also negotiated for a better price. After each presentation, the audience was allowed to ask questions. The students were very professional and some of them shared using powerpoint and other with videos.

As a group, we visited EnAble India’s innovation space where they showed us some of the technology that enables them to empower people with disabilities. This space included software that allowed physically disabled people to type messages with their eyes and visually disabled people could understand a computer screen by using their hands to navigate a brail apparatus. They also allowed our group to try on glasses that simulated the different types of visual impairment. I was very impressed because some of the innovations were actually designed by people with disabilities!

EnAble India, in partnership with the American India Foundation, has trained over 500 youth with disabilities resulting in about 90% of them being gainfully employed. Besides this, there have been initiatives to build capacity of NGOs through Training of Trainers program.

After visiting Enable India, We were also able to visit several program participants at their working place at a department store and individuals who worked at local vegetable stand. Employers shared that not only was it a great idea to employ disabled people, sometimes they are the preferred choice. For example, one of the employers shared that one of her employees is a person with intellectual disability but has extremely high attention to detail when it comes to organizing vegetables and fruit. He is also very honest and will sometimes tell customers, “Don’t buy that piece of fruit. It has been there since yesterday. Here, buy this one instead, it is fresher”. We all laughed but we could clearly understand why this would be a value add for employers and the customers as well who keep coming back because of the genuineness and authenticity of the employees.

EnAble Community Initiative

After several days of touring educational and employment programs, our group headed over to Enable India’s community initiative. We walked into a gym with several tennis courts set up. There were several badminton matches already in progress with the participants using the aid of wheelchairs as they played the sport. This initiative of Enable India intentionally uses sports as a community sensitization tool to raise awareness about disability within the greater community. All of the fellows lined the wall across from the courts. The tour guide asked if anyone wanted to play, my hand was one of the first to go up! I was excited about any opportunity for some friendly competition. Another fellow, Janelle, joined me. We confidently strolled onto the court and sat in our wheelchairs. They shared the rules and we started the game. It was definitely challenging to get the hang of moving the wheel chair as well as focusing on the game. I can clearly understand why something as simple as sports can really heighten awareness and sensitivity toward people with disabilities.


AIF Fellow Janelle Funtanilla and I gear up for a friendly match of badminton.

India’s Approach to Address the needs of People with Disabilities

After these experiences, my mind was full of how, as a society, we must continue to innovate and create opportunities for people with disabilities to have equal opportunities. According to the 2011 Census, there are approximately 26.8 million people in India, or 2.21% of India’s 1.2 billion population, who live with disabilities (Social Statistics Division, 2016). According to the 2016 Disabled Persons in India Statistical Profile, The Indian government has begun to focus on ‘inclusive development’ as a key component of sustainable development and the welfare of disabled persons as an essential part of the national development plan. The goal is to identify the needs and necessary interventions so that people with disabilities have access to education, employment and good quality of life.


Cheshire Disability Trust . (2013). Cheshire Disability Trust. Retrieved from Leonard Cheshire Disability:

EnAble India. (2017). Home. Retrieved from EnAble India:

Government of India. (2006). National Policy for Persons with Disabilities. New Delhi: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

JSS Group of Institutions. (2012). Retrieved from His Holiness Jagadguru Sri Shivarathri Deshikendra Mahaswamiji:

JSS Mahavidyapeetha. (2009). JSS Sahana IED School, Saraswathipuram, Mysore. Retrieved from JSS Mahavidyapeetha:

Social Statistics Division. (2016). Disabled Persons in India A Statistical Profile 2016. New Delhi: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation Government of India. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2015, September 25). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform:







Crystal is a national speaker, author and foster care advocate. She uses the arts to promote individual and community change. Crystal graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in English, Creative Writing and Theater Studies and received her MBA from Georgia State University with a focus in organizational management. Crystal has also worked with child welfare organizations in Georgia in the areas of marketing and communications, strategy and implementation, fundraising and community mobilization, and training and curriculum development. She has also volunteered as the theater director for the teen ministry of an international ministry. Crystal has served as a member of Georgia Governor’s Council for child welfare reform, she is certified in Life Stories® Theater curriculum, and she is a founding member of an advocacy group for foster youth in Georgia called Georgia Empowerment. Crystal is also a young fellow for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative through the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Crystal has traveled the nation as an advocate for foster children and uses her gift of spoken word poetry to challenge and motivate audiences. Crystal’s mission is to inspire people to use their gifts for good to leave their mark on this world in permanent ink.

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