Jayshree Ravindran believes that right opportunities at the right time can be life-changing. She sees this happen at Ability Foundation, where the differently abled are taught to be independent.

If there's one thing that can get Jayshree Ravindran, founder and director of Ability Foundation, Chennai, angry, it is the way society treats the differently-abled. But she didn't just fume in silence; she decided that she just had to do something to change attitudes and do away with prejudices.

In 1995, she began the Ability Foundation. Her first project was a magazine for and about the disabled. She says, “While there were magazines on every available subject, there was nothing for people with disabilities. And what little was written made them out to be either objects of pity or super heroes. But, you know, differently-abled people are no different from anyone else. As a person with disability myself, I know how society conditions us to believe we cannot do anything. I jumped into this primarily to show that there was a positive side to disability; that we could do the same things and have the same needs and desires as ‘normal' people.” And then emphatically, “I hate the word ‘normal'.”

Bringing the magazine out was a huge task — “people thought I was crazy” — but this led Jayshree to tap into a network of people with disabilities and people who work for them.

“When I began, only three people understood my language: Actor Revathy, CavinKare CMD C.K. Ranganathan, and former WHO Regional Director Dr. Thangavelu.” Before she knew it, the foundation's first anniversary showed up and Jayshree was dreaming big. She'd planned a show in which visually challenged dancers would perform alongside those with normal vision.

She smiles nostalgically as she recalls: “Revathy and I conceived of a programme in which choreography was complex; nobody made any concessions for disability. But those girls weren't bothered. They wanted us to describe their costumes, the backdrop, what others were wearing...”

Walking the ramp

Buoyed by the success of this programme, Jayshree thought of a fashion show for the next year. “That was a time when Indian girls were winning international titles. So I thought why not a show with the differently-abled walking the ramp? Some people laughed; others felt I was mocking the disabled. But I would never do that. We had Aishwarya Rai participate and Usha Uthup to anchor the show. It was a huge success and people saw that disability need not hold anyone back.”

Little by little, year after year, the Ability Foundation spread its wings. EmployAbility, a job fair for the disabled, is now an annual event as is the Ability Fest and the Ability Awards. “The placement wing began as a one-to-one thing,” says Jayshree reminiscently. “Initially I spoke to friends in the corporate world about individual cases. Then when there were too many such cases, we organised a job fair. We had sensitisation programmes for the corporates first, asking them to look beyond disability and to focus only on the candidate's capability. What moved me most was the candidates' joy — not at getting a job — but at being called for multiple interviews.”

An accident in childhood left Jayshree hearing impaired but it didn't stop her from doing anything she wanted. She learnt to dance, to play the veena... “Yes, there were problems,” she says, “but it's like running. You don't stop running just because you fall down and hurt yourself, do you? Of course there are some things I cannot do, like answer phone calls for instance. And you need to come over and tap my shoulder to get my attention instead of shouting from across the room...” All it takes is “reasonable accommodation”, a phrase that she applies to anyone dealing with the differently-abled.

Ask about a high point and she narrates a rather poignant incident. A visually challenged girl wanted to do B.Com so Jayshree helped her get books in Braille. “The girl's reaction was enlightening. ‘I can study any time I want,' she said. Only then it struck me that she had to wait for someone to come and read to her. It is a question of the right opportunity at the right time.”

Ask about future plans and she says at the moment she's hoping to expand and improve the existing initiatives. “My mission is to strive for a society where there is no discrimination on grounds of disability. I am now working towards the right concept of promoting inclusion in every walk of life... be it education, employment, recreation or independent living. Independent living does not mean living alone. It means making one's own independent choices in life. Inclusion does not mean a simple awareness of persons with disabilities or the fact that one is unbiased... it means making available and making possible, facilities that promote being included... these may be physical, technological or environmental.”

As she signs off, she says, “Remember, ability is not the opposite of disability. That's why we are called Ability Foundation; as a reminder that there is ability even within disability.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012