D.J.K. Cornelius and his Navajyothi Trust are making a difference to the lives of the mentally-challenged.

D.J.K. Cornelius has designed so many machines and workstations for people with special needs in the last forty years that he's lost count.

None of them have anything to do with his regular job as an industrial engineer. And he's never patented any of his designs. But they've made a life-changing difference to hundreds of mentally- challenged young people across the nation. And they've certainly given Cornelius more satisfaction than any designing he's done on the job.

“It's far more rewarding than what I was trained for professionally,” says Cornelius, founder of the Navajyothi Trust, which completed 40 years in 2009. “Others may say creating an industrial conveyor belt is more complex engineering, but changing people's lives this way is much more satisfying.”

His specially crafted workstations are based on a simple principle — that modifying the working environment to suit the needs of the mentally-challenged allows them to maximise their potential. “Rather than focussing on what they can't do, you look at what they can, and find innovative ways to make the most of their abilities,” he says.

This means that youngsters at his institute (with IQs measured at 50 and below) today perform highly precise and complex tasks for companies such as Delphi TVS and Brakes India Ltd., creating diesel pumps for cars, perhaps, or bicycle or motorcycle chains, and earn a respectable salary.

“They aren't given these jobs out of charity,” he stresses. “This is a business agreement, and the companies' requirements are rigid. At Navajyothi, every person is a social contributor, and they can hold their heads high.”

A long journey

His journey began back in 1968, when he helped diagnose two children of close friends as being mentally-challenged (he was a consultant for the Industrial Therapy Centre at the Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk at the time). An engineer with a love for medicine, he'd spent long hours reading his doctor-father's books on mental disability, and later in Presidency College, had worked with the Psychology department, helping design equipment for experimental psychology.

“My friends came to me for assistance because they'd been running from pillar to post and hadn't gotten a diagnosis,” he recalls with emotion. “When I broke it to them gently, they were shattered.”

Moved by the impact it had on the children and their families, he dedicated himself thereafter to the cause of mental disability.

“What I found sorely lacking was post school-age programmes, so that 16 year olds emerging from special schools were just left high and dry,” he says. “Employment facilities were more occupational than vocational — their income was a pittance and their products were just not marketable.”

And so he established the Navajyothi Trust in 1969, with a grand total of Rs. 3,000 as the corpus of the trust (“A couple of friends pooled in Rs. 1,000 each”) and designed his first workstation shortly after (“the more sophisticated the task it assisted them in, the more they'd earn” was his mantra). Unfortunately, this project found no support in Chennai, and he began work instead in Bangalore under the aegis of NIMHANS, in a small rented residence with just three students, training them and introducing them to his workstations. Soon people began to hear about his work — a National Award came the trust's way in 1981, and visiting dignitaries urged him to take his work across the country. “They'd never seen anything like it before, and said it should reach more people,” he says.

That's how he came to develop the Diploma in Vocational Training & Employment (DVTE ) to teach instructors to train the mentally-challenged in his techniques. It became the first such course in India to be licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), and is today taught (in a modified form) at several institutes across the country, from Chandigarh to Thiruvananthapuram. In time, the little centre he started morphed into a full-fledged institute — training, creating research modules and publishing works, and of course, designing and developing his workstations. And in 2000, it finally shifted to Chennai entirely, after the trust was gifted land in Ambattur by the Tamil Nadu State Government.

In these four decades, Cornelius has seen a lot of change. “There's greater awareness about disability today, and plenty of work has been done on the legal side, with a lot of rights being legislated,” says the 79-year-old, who is also one of the founding members of The Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, and was associated with the National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped, and has served on several expert committees for Government ministries. “But there's still a need to infuse more science and technology into the fight.”

He adds with a smile: “I would like to spread my work into other areas of disability as well; I only hope I have enough time.”