Corporate executive and disability advocate Meenu Bhambhani on helping persons with disability navigate the corporate world

Meenu Bhambhani’s petite frame, charming looks and soft-spoken nature belie an iron will. It is this sheer resilience that appears to have helped her overcome stereotyping against persons with disabilities and climb up the corporate ladder with relative ease.

In the process of her journey, Dr. Meenu, a victim of polio, who has been heading the office of Diversity and Inclusion and Global Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at MphasiS, Bangalore, for the past six years, has helped many other people with disabilities find a future for themselves in the corporate world.

Her pioneering work in the fields of CSR and employment of people with disabilities has ensured that “of the 36,000 employees of MphasiS, a good one percent is persons with disabilities”. Dr. Meenu, a native of Jaipur, holds a masters degree in disability and human development from the University of Illinois at Chicago, supported by a fellowship from the International Ford Foundation, and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Rajasthan. She has previously worked as lecturer of English in Kishengarh, as Assistant Commissioner for Disability, Government of Rajasthan, and has served as a programme officer for the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Persons with Disabilities (NCPEPD). Dr. Meenu was here in the city to share her story at a LEAP (Leadership Enhancement Acceleration Programme) event organised by Allianz at Technopark. Excerpts from an interview...

Stepping onto the corporate ladder

The two years I spent in Chicago all but changed my life. I was a mediocre student with the occasional spark of brilliance. I realised that maybe I had not been performing well in academics because I didn’t have real access to it. I had until then been spending most of my energy navigating the ecosystem. For instance, during school and college my only struggle was to reach the classroom! I did not know about rights and entitlements or anything about reasonable accommodation [an adjustment made in a system to accommodate or make the same system fair for an individual based on a proven need].

One never asked for help or support because we were only trying to fit in. In Chicago I realised the value of having a support system in place; one that would allow me to explore my potential – things like being given access to a motorised wheelchair or getting picked up and dropped off at the University library. I wanted to come back to India and make a change and help create an ecosystem where persons with disabilities can thrive. For two years I worked in the area advocacy with NCPEPD, before joining MphasiS. I’m glad that I made that choice because the corporate world needed experts on disability working from within.

Bringing about inclusivity in the work place

It starts with sensitisation at the managerial level because the biggest battle is changing the mindset. There are actually three types of mindsets. There are those totally resistant to the idea of employing persons with disability and others who stereotype. For example, they think visually challenged people can only be receptionists and the like. And finally, what would come first, chicken or egg. Do you hire people before you have disabled-friendly infrastructure? Unless you actually have people with disabilities in the work place you would not feel the need for a change.

Breaking the myth that persons with disability are unemployable

When MphasiS held a walk in interview for disabled persons for the first time in July 2007, out of the 57 people who came for the interview only seven got selected. That was disheartening.

The pool of qualified disabled people in India is very small. But there are many who can be trained and made employable. And that’s exactly what we did. We tied up with local NGOs for the same. MphasiS is now a pioneer in the field of employing people with disability and we are able to show with numbers how our policies have benefitted the disabled.

These days its no longer a novelty when corporate recruitment ads state ‘applications from people with disabilities welcome.’ When it comes to practicalities, we have to approach it case by case.

No one disability is alike. For example, there is a wheelchair-bound young woman, a team leader in our Indore BPO centre who finds it difficult to use the office toilet. She is more comfortable using the toilet in her home, which is nearby. So we have given her the option of compiling all her smaller breaks into a single large break which enables her to go home in between. Then there is another guy in one of our BPOs, who if he sits 15 minutes extra than his allotted time, develops bedsores. So we ensure that he doesn’t work any extra time at all. It’s really a myth when they say that it would cost companies more to employ people with disabilities.

Facilities for the disabled at Technopark

Whatever little I’ve seen of the campus I would rate it as moderately friendly for disabled people. I used the washroom at one of the buildings and it was quite user friendly. The only problem I found was that it has granite floors which makes it rather slippery to walk and navigate on a wheelchair.

I also noticed that there were ramps on both sides of the entrance to the building. However, they were quite steep. Also there were no grab bars at the ramps. It’s important to follow standards when designing a building to be disabled-friendly.