A wider net: non-profit helps disabled upskill during the lockdown

Youth4Jobs trains youngsters with disabilities in rural India, will now connect them to employers

June 23, 2020 12:33 am | Updated 12:33 am IST - Mumbai

A Youth4Jobs training session in progress.

A Youth4Jobs training session in progress.

Mahesh Kale (22) lent his parents a hand in their farm in Yesawadi village in Ahmednagar district during the nationwide lockdown, when labour was hard to come by. The family grows corn and cereal, and farming is their only source of income.

During his lunch breaks, Mr. Kale, who has a speech and hearing impairment and has studied up to Class XII, watched videos preparing him for a job. His disability has not cut his ambition; like most men his age, Mr. Kale says he “wants to work in a reputed company and support his family financially.”

Mr. Kale was part of Web Interface Study Environment (WISE), an online training and placement programme conducted by Youth4Jobs (Y4J) Foundation, a pan-India organisation that trains youth with disabilities and links them to organised sector jobs in the cities.

“We launched Youth4Jobs Online as a COVID-19 response, across India,” says Meera Shenoy, founder and CEO, Youth4Jobs. “At a time when every skilling organisation had halted operations, we were the only ones who launched a programme in the disability space; one of the few working at the bottom of the pyramid,” she says. The programme’s imperative was providing people with disability — among the most underemployed and undereducated community in India — a safety net during and after the lockdown.

The Y4J teams in 27 centres across the country reached out to youth with disability, government organisations, rural communities and gram panchayats to collect data.

Social media

The teams placed advertisements on social media to mobilise candidates with disabilities in search of employment opportunities, and reached out to organisations that had a manpower requirement. Y4J alumni who wanted to upgrade their skills were also welcome to take the training.

A majority of the candidates were from low-income backgrounds in rural areas. They had speech and hearing impairment, locomotor (physical or orthopaedic) disabilities, low vision and intellectual disability, and had not completed their secondary and higher secondary education. Some had not even completed Class X.

The NGO received calls from remote places — “little villages in Bihar and even Agartala,” says Ms. Shenoy — and a big challenge was addressing candidates with bandwidth issues. “We had to take a strategic decision on tools and learning management systems,” says Ms. Shenoy. “How could we open up the possibility of them watching sessions offline, take attendance, do screen-sharing, and help them log in with a simple interface?”

Candidates were screened on internet connectivity, how digitally savvy they were, whether they owned smartphones and computers, what their available time slots were, and whether they were willing to take up jobs. Those from 18 years to over 35 years of age were trained in life skills, basic English and job readiness in the 15-day programme. In case of hirers like Amazon, candidates were trained to crack the entrance test. The team created sign language videos for speech-and-hearing impaired people.

A team comprising a project executive, trainers and sign language interpreters ran the programme in each centre. “While our regular classroom training is for eight hours a day, we had to cut it down to two to three hours,” says Swapnil Dewalwar, assistant programme manager, WISE programme, Mumbai region. “This is because their attention span is small, and it becomes difficult to find candidates in one place,” he said.

Mix of content

The teams looked at a mix of live and pre-recorded content, says Mr. Dewalwar. For the live sessions, Whatsapp, Google Hangouts and Zoom were used, while for the pre-recorded sessions, Facebook Private Groups came in handy. “Our biggest challenge was how to get them to understand Zoom and Google Hangouts, and how to load these apps. They knew SMS and WhatsApp to some extent. It took a lot of time and patience from the teams,” says Ms. Shenoy.

Assessments — one mid-way through the course and one at the end — were conducted mainly through Google Forms and live video calls, and certificates were given to candidates once when they completed the course.

At least 1,152 people have been trained so far in 117 batches. “In just two batches, 1,100 youth with disabilities enrolled in rural areas. We have tapped into some kind of energy no one expected,” says Ms. Shenoy.

Another interesting aspect was that girls, who would not come to the resource centres earlier, had enrolled in large numbers because of the relative safety of their homes. Also, dropouts, which the teams were expecting because of classes being online, were negligible.

Placement support

Despite the impact on the economy due to the lockdown, a number of corporates in the Y4J network across India were ready to hire their candidates post the lockdown. The foundation has a corporate connect team that does accessibility audits, sensitises managers and provides sign language training. “We build relationships with organisations and encourage them to hire candidates in multiple roles. We explore how they can take in people with 100% visual impairment or intellectual disabilities, which they may not otherwise be keen on doing,” says Mr. Dewalwar.

Post lockdown, the team will take stock of the situation and connect candidates to work opportunities. A job readiness orientation, mock interviews and a role orientation will be part of the process. During placement, candidates with speech and hearing impairment will have interpreter support and a team member will accompany the candidates during the interview. Post placement, there will be periodic follow-ups, and intervention for resolving work-related issues.

The foundation is also thinking of conducting a drive to procure unused phones and computers to help those with no access to these devices. None of this comes easy, especially if you are going where no one else has, says Ms. Shenoy. “Patience, compassion and a love for what they do carries the team through,” she says.

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