In Conversation With Dr Niru Kumar, Founder And CEO, Ask Insights

When it comes to implementing PwD policies and creating the right infrastructure for people with disabilities, companies in India don't seem to be ready yet. In an exclusive interview with Sugandh Bahl, Sr. Correspondent, BW People, the Padma Shri awardee gets candid about the PwD inclusion scenario at the workplace in India and how a movement around it needs to start. More importantly, business leaders need to understand the lived experience of people with disabilities, she says.


Q. You have been a pioneer of D&I in India. What according to you has been the status of the inclusion of people with disabilities till now? How do you see and how can you claim that we are on to the path of a changing scenario now? 

Dr Niru Kumar: I'd like to begin by saying that I myself, have a disability, and I got polio in early childhood. So I have been waiting for the day when the conversation would start in a meaningful way. 

About 15 years back when I started 'Ask insights' and the work in diversity and inclusion, diversity to the people of India meant only gender. They would say we have diversity in the team, meaning we have women in our team or we have a diversity candidate. The conversation of gender was very important and still is and I have done enormous work in the space of gender by talking to people about gender intelligence, not just gender sensitization. Slowly it started widening to LGBTQ community and to different ethnic groups conversation. For disability, we have barely started. Because disability is a area that people were apprehensive about.  

The first apprehension was creating accessible workplaces, which would mean total revamping of infrastructure and buildings. 

The second apprehension was all the sensitivities that are involved around disability. Nobody wants to make a mistake, nobody wants to offend anybody or be legally, or socially wrong in how they are interacting. 

People were also worried about the performance of people with disabilities. Whether would they need too much accommodation, would they be able to perform. With the list of all of these apprehensions, I think we have just started and till now there are very few organizations that have meaningfully started hiring and engaging people with disabilities. 

We are going to have a conference in partnership with Businessworld. We are calling it Disability Positive. The tagline of our conferences is enabling organizations to launch their disability initiatives. Because we want to handhold them in giving up that fear. We want them to have all the information that they need so that they can get confidence to launch the good intent that they already have. 

Q. Are we just at the starting point or at a very nascent stage of working towards disability or do you feel that in comparison to previous times, we've come a long way? 

Dr Niru Kumar: We haven't come a long way at all. I have grown up in a place in India where right from accessibility to people understanding,  disability etiquette, it was completely lacking. Now, the only thing that has changed is that there is intent. Awareness is still a long way to go. Actual, reasonable accommodations and actual changes will take a few years before we catch up. 

As an employer, what do you think an employer needs to keep in mind in order to provide a seamless inclusion experience to their employees?

Dr Niru Kumar: I would say few things to keep in mind, we spoke about accessibility. Now, accessibility needs to be very authentic. For example, I've done a great deal of work with the Election Commission of India in making polling booths accessible for people with disabilities. And when we started doing work we found that there were several barriers. Creating just a ramp is not enough.

The thought has to start from the entry, from the person reaching the door and the accessibility of the entry. So suppose there are barriers or when you have security barriers. How will a person with a disability navigate that? Will the wheelchair be good on that particular road? So all that has to be kept in mind. I'm not saying that we're looking at only locomotive disabilities. I'll talk about other forms of disabilities also. But right now, to begin with, I'm talking about locomotor. Suppose there is a big pothole between the ramp and the road or the ramp is very steep or very slick, that has to be seen. People are still not aware of the intricacies of how a ramp should be. 

Q. Do you think having such an infrastructure for PwD within an organization is only a matter of tokenism and checklists today? What to your mind is the right way to go about it?

Dr Niru Kumar: Large organizations will not do that. Because in the area of disability, there might be tokenism in a lot of other areas of D&I but for disability, they will not do that because they know of the risk involved. In today's day, I think multinationals will rather stay away from it and they are openly saying that we're not yet ready because they know they can't launch it in a way that is not authentic. 

The right way to go about it is to first have a complete audit of the premises, and then have an expert give you recommendations as to how to make that place accessible. If you don't, if you just get a common architect and create a ramp that is going to be tokenism, And if anybody is doing that, they'll soon realize that it won't work. And then accessibility is not only for locomotor, there are other forms of accessibility issues like digital accessibility for the hearing impaired, visually impaired people use of Braille, and using technology which is disability friendly, all of them have to be done alongside, you can't do just one aspect. 

Q. How can we expect people from the PwD group to be ready to accept their disability and just to get hired on the basis of talent wherein deep down they know that organizations are claiming that they're just not ready in terms of infrastructure to accommodate them? 

Dr Niru Kumar: I know it's very discouraging. And when you have a conversation with people with disabilities, you will hear so much angst, you'll hear them talk about how painful it is. If you hear about their lived experience, you will hear about the struggle they have gone through. you also have a lot of struggles. We've all gone through to just merely survive, or to go to social places or to go to public places. I still remember I went to a trade fair, and I was standing in the line for a long time and my son approached the guard and asked him if she could go out of line, and the guard said, Why do you come? Take her back home.

That's the kind of feeling I live with that maybe I'm not entitled to go everywhere. Maybe I should not expect to go to entertainment places. I think that a lot of people think like that. To be included in everything, whether it is entertainment, whether it is work, or anything else. To be included in everything requires the society, the infrastructure, and organization leaders to assure them that they are a valuable part of the society and reasonable accommodations will be done to include them. 

As I said, it's going to take time. 

Q.Do you think hiring PwD can make for a good business case besides the social inclusion perspective that companies are carrying today? 

Dr Niru Kumar: You've raised a very good point because we talk about a theme of equity. I have been doing a lot of this conversation w.r.t gender, but it also applies to people with disabilities. So, what is equity? Equity is taking care of specific needs and second, making up for the backlog of the past. I often say that when I entered medical college, I didn't take use of the disability quota. I wrote the UPSC exam. I didn't take use of the disability quota. When I  address people with disabilities. I tell them I was foolish. I say that the lived experience of people with disabilities has had so much struggle. Maybe they couldn't reach their classes, maybe when others were studying they were in the hospitals, and maybe they took much longer to reach the colleges or schools. That backlog of the past has to be taken care of and that equity has to be provided. So when they talk about merit, one, our idea of merit may be a little limited. Second, we shouldn't miss the equity part of it. So does that mean you compromise your merit? No, you can't do that. So what you do is in resumes, you look at the job description. You look at the job roles which are ready to invite people with disabilities. And maybe in that role, you're also looking at abled people. 

So equity means you don't compromise on merit, but if it is a 19-20 fit. If there is a difference of that much., Let's go ahead and do it. And when it comes to women, we can consider a 15-20 fit because we want to encourage that kind of movement and representation. 

Now coming to the business case. Here comes the point of leveraging the diversity of thought. People with disabilities have gone through a lot of struggles. And the struggle is a precursor to success. Because struggle wires your brain to find solutions. The ability they have in terms of resilience of finding solutions and out-of-the-box thinking you have to encourage them. You have no choice. 

Innovation becomes part of your life with a disability. And that is the innovation we can leverage to get better business results. The entire conversation today about leveraging the diversity of thought is exactly that and different groups bring different perspectives. There is a research by Professor Scott Page which talks about the mental toolbox, it says your qualification and your knowledge is only one part of it. The other is your own problem-solving skills. If you're able to combine this with your mental toolbox, it becomes much larger. And then diversity becomes as important as what you call merit. 

Q. Don't you think in comparison to abled people, people with PwD have to work an extra mile hard in order to show their acumen?

Dr Niru Kumar: Yes, most of them, It may be unconscious, you don't realize it, but your driving force is that you don't become irrelevant. That's the major part of the psyche, which drives the person to work at every point in life. You want to become irrelevant, and there are some very self-respecting people with disabilities who say, I want to be a valuable part of my family and society forever. And for that, I will work twice and thrice as hard to be accepted. Let's face it, the lived experience of people with disabilities is that most of the time they have to go through a lot of struggle. And many of them say, I'll take it in my stride. It's okay, but I can't give up the work. Especially if they get to work through a lot of struggle to get hired. Through a lot of struggle, they say that it doesn't matter. 

Yes, and that's why I think leaders of organizations and government leaders, need to be very aware of the lived experience of people with disabilities. When we hire and invite people with disabilities, we need to understand their experience. 

Q. Do you also feel that companies need to uplift their upskilling costs as well if they're hiring people with PwD?

Dr Niru Kumar: Yes, they do because if we look at the Indian scenario, I don't have the exact numbers right now with me, but for people with disabilities who are highly qualified, you will find fewer numbers because of the sheer fact that there was no accessibility in the earlier years, so keeping that in mind, if they have a certain qualification, but you want them to get into senior roles, whether it is funding them for higher education, whether it is upskilling them in the technical skills, and also the soft skills like confidence, like positioning themselves, all of this is important. 

Organizations are doing it in a big way for women today, so it should not come as something new for them. 

Lastly, Dr. Niru, you have lived an experience of disability yourself. What is your vision of PwD in India? What is your message to everybody? 

Dr Niru Kumar: So my message is that the sooner we normalize disability, the better it will be. And by normalizing I mean we don't want patronizing. Sometimes people with the best of intent start patronising. Even if I am walking down the street and there is a footpath, suddenly I will find somebody holding my arm and yanking me up in an attempt to help me but that actually destabilises me. 

We need to normalise disability. We need to make it part of a process and be seen as valuable citizens who can contribute to society and if there is equity required to really bring up the balance, the representation and the skill set, well we do that.

.Watch the full interview on the link below

Note: The automatic transcription has been lightly edited for a better reading experience. Some names and parts of the transcription may carry inadvertent errors that we are in the process of editing. Thank you for your understanding

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