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SUGANDHA SUKRUTARAJ

India,

Sugandha Sukrutaraj founded AMBA a registered Trust, and AMBA Centers for the Economic Empowerment of the Intellectually Challenged (CEEICs). Through these centers she integrates young people with cognitive disabilities into the mainstream by training them for specific low-skill information technology jobs, thereby empowering them economically and giving them a sense of purpose.

This profile below was prepared when Sugandha Sukrutaraj was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

Fellow Sketch

Sugandha Sukrutraj is economically empowering adults with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities through her pioneering visual and functional learning curriculum. Sugandha’s exclusive curriculum for the community enables them to do specific low-skill IT jobs and is most effective when tutored by peers.

With no knowledge of alphabets from any language, AMBA’s unique curriculum and model of learning enables this community to grasp alphabets, numbers and words as images. This ensures effective and accurate data entry using the computer within 6 to 12 months. Sugandha collaborates with special institutions across the country and guides them into becoming hubs for training and employment by using AMBA’s ‘Learn and Earn’ concept. As part of this, a special educator and 2 youngsters with moderate intellectual ability come from every special institution to experience the peer-driven process at the base centre in Bangalore. While, the visiting peers are trained to become peer trainers, special educators are exposed to the limitations they have to work within and the end picture they need to strive for. The AMBA concept is being presently used by 75 special institutions in 15 states across India. While, 25 centres have completed training, 12 centres have experienced work and 45 centres are undergoing training. 

Sugandha creates a suitable environment for these adults, who lack social or reasoning skills, to work. Through the AMBA Centers for the Economic Empowerment of the Intellectually Challenged (CEEICs), she integrates them into the mainstream and gives them a sense of purpose. The AMBA CEEICS match work from mainstream organizations with the training. A core team comprising of peers, manages the day-to-day work and ensures that results are delivered within timelines with the help of an efficient tracking system that monitors the remote centres. AMBA has successfully finished projects with the Adiga Hotel Chain, Taj Hotels, Airtel, Idea and ING Life, to name a few. These work opportunities have transformed the outlook of the families towards the communities’ image as an expense account to an income provider. The community speaks up for themselves at promotional events and board meetings and raise funds while finding better opportunities. Sugandha has also organised the successful signature campaign, ‘Be a Fan of Dignity’, to sensitize school kids about intellectual disabilities in the process gathering 11 million signatures from 14 states in India. She plans to organise a similar campaign with the police force, armed forces security, railways personnel and the larger public and a large-scale event at the end of 2014 to promote the communities’ ability in a mainstream circumstance.

Sugandha plans to expand her work to another 5 states in India during 2014-15 and complete training for another 500 collaborative centres by 2020 with 6000 intellectually challenged people trained and employed. She wants to eventually develop infrastructure that will help 30,000-50,000 youngsters. Sugandha also plans to build an AMBA campus by December 2016 to create a hub that will not only provide training and employment opportunities, but, also, support remote centres, act as a research and development centre and a residential facility. 

Note: This was updated in August, 2014. Read on for the ELECTION profile

INTRODUCTION

Sugandha Sukrutaraj founded AMBA a registered Trust, and AMBA Centers for the Economic Empowerment of the Intellectually Challenged (CEEICs). Through these centers she integrates young people with cognitive disabilities into the mainstream by training them for specific low-skill information technology jobs, thereby empowering them economically and giving them a sense of purpose.




THE NEW IDEA

In India, people with intellectual disabilities are generally thought to be incapable of holding a job, let alone contributing to society. Sugandha feels that with appropriate and specific preparation, youth with IQs of less than 65 can in fact perform repetitive jobs. She trains young people with low IQs to work in information technology, doing low-skill, repetitive jobs, which the companies might otherwise outsource. She has developed a new model of learning, which  enables them to grasp the alphabets, numbers and words as objects and trains them to do effective data entry using the computer to his/her own degree of ability/competence. The collective abilities are thereafter used to out put low-skill back end work from mainstream companies that find it too expensive to do this work in-house and therefore outsource the same on contract to the AMBA CEEICs. The youngsters who are capable of working independently are placed within the mainstream organization.

AMBA CEEICs are collaborations through which Sugandha networks and attends to the whole person. Intel is one partner who provides the only certificate of merit jointly signed with AMBA, which the individual receives on completion of the training within his/her abilities. They also help document and update the curriculum and give AMBA some of the hardware required. The other partner is the CO/the Indian Air Force/Corporate within whose premises she sets up the AMBA CEEIC. Microsoft provides the software. The centers have many different requirements met by different organizations, all in kind to meet their needs.

The companies identify the jobs that they wish to outsource or for which they need trained workers, which allows Sugandha’s organization to tailor its training to specific tasks, increasing the success of new trainees. The AMBA CEEICs are similarly tailored for each individual student’s capacity and skill. In her innovative system, not only are parents of AMBA students involved in the training process, but, past trainees help to educate other intellectually challenged children. Even the mainstream Special Educators Training is done by the intellectually challenged trainer, through the different stages of training while setting up new AMBA CEEICs. The result is a new pool of low-skilled workers who can benefit mainstream companies while creating a job niche for a segment of society that has traditionally been excluded from mainstream economic activity. This improves the self-esteem of youth who are often neglected, even in their own families.     
 
To do this, Sugandha has leveraged the resources of India’s armed forces and other COs. Her centers are located on military bases, and within COs which are situated around the country. She uses her military and corporate background to work with major corporations like Intel, Tata Indicom, Reliance Telecom, Special Olympics Bharat,  Hero Honda, Ford, Dinshaw’s Ice Cream, SBI, Gokulum Chit Funds, Ujjivan, Honeywell, HDFC and Canara Bank to name a few. She has placed intellectually challenged workers in companies such as these, as well as in government agencies, but a large percentage is employed at the AMBA Centers for the Intellectually Challenged (AMBA CEEICs). She is currently working with the government to get her course approved as an accredited certification and to also bring in data entry work from the Government. The collector and magistrate in Ujjain are working a model with her center at MANOVIKAS AMBA CEEIC in Ujjain. Should this be successful, he would support starting many more AMBA CEEICs doing data entry for the Government within M which could also be replicated into other states.




THE PROBLEM

According to the 2001 census, India is home to over two million cognitively disabled people, out of a total disabled population of nearly twenty-two million. Intellectual disabilities are poorly understood in India. It is commonly thought, even among educators, that anyone with an IQ of less than 80 cannot participate in mainstream activities, least of all join the workforce. This limits the economic opportunities available to the cognitively challenged, leaving them marginalized and disempowered.

Furthermore, young people with intellectual deficits often receive few family resources, which makes it difficult for them to deal with the challenges they face in the mainstream adult world. The stigma against the cognitively impaired is so strong that women are occasionally tortured or harassed for having given birth to an intellectually disabled child. Moreover, intellectually challenged children often develop behavioral problems when they hit puberty; these problems are often mistaken for mental illness, which is widely stigmatized, especially in the superstition-prone communities of rural India.    

While India’s landmark Disability Act of 1995 does protect the rights of the intellectually challenged, the Act’s provisions have mostly been applied in the area of physical disability. For the intellectually impaired and their advocates, two of the most important challenges are integration into society and economic empowerment, but protecting and promoting their rights within the mainstream economy is extremely difficult.

Quite a number of COs in India work with the disabled. Though they have successfully raised awareness, promoted education and vocational training, and increased institutional support systems, their primary focus has been on the physically disabled. Very few organizations have worked to integrate the intellectually disabled into the mainstream. Those COs that do address the issue have provided limited rehabilitation and vocational education, and have been vulnerable to changes in funding.




THE STRATEGY

Sugandha started AMBA and the AMBA CEEICs in 2004 on the premise that boys and girls with an IQ of 65 or lower can reason and have the potential to perform repetitive jobs, even if they cannot do them without supervision. The first step in her work is to identify, with the help of schools, COs, and special education centers, children over the age of 16 with low IQs. Then she must convince their families to allow them to participate in the program. To this end, she works with mothers, educating them about intellectual disabilities and then empowering them through a microfinance program in collaboration with STMS in the villages of Mandya District so that they can provide for themselves and their children. (Today parents are convinced of the benefits of sending their children to AMBA CEEICs.)

The second step is to train the young people themselves. She begins by teaching them basic life skills, such as self-care, social skills, and how to travel alone, first from home to their training center and then to the workplace. While they may not have the ability to go through formal education, they go through this innovative process of learning which enables them to do the following jobs: 1) Data entry of client details from hand written forms to the data base 2) Mail merging; printing the merged letters; folding, enveloping and stapling; handing over to the courier service; documenting the outflow of the letters by courier and the returned letters if any; informing the company of the returned letters by email 3) Receipt printing. The organization sends limited client information over the Internet using only a client number; this is printed out as reference and numbered. The student trainee (computer operator) opens the Point of Sale Program on the Intranet, types in the client number in an appropriate cell and presses a key—all the details including the name and address appear. He then cross checks the information received with the earlier information received and saves each form. The process is the same as for mail merging the saved forms—they are printed, folded, enveloped, stapled, and handed over to the courier service; the outflow of the letters by courier are documented and the returned letters if any; the organization is informed of the returned letters by email, and 4) Scanning signatures for client signature verification for the bank 5) Dispatch, including, mail-merging and sending emails to a data base; dispatch through courier; dispatch through post; printing and dispatching through courier or post. As part of the curriculum, Sugandha reinforces the training her students receive in the center’s protective job environment. During that process, Sugandha identifies those who can advance into the open economy. At the same time, she builds awareness among potential employers. When her young trainees first start their new jobs, a supervisor stays with them until they are able to work on their own. This is often a parent or a more experienced intellectually challenged computer operator.

Sugandha believes her clients’ parents are in a perfect position to help train and place their children, since they best understand their needs. So she teaches parents—mostly mothers—to support their children themselves, equipping them first to replicate what the centers have taught their children and, later, to volunteer to teach others. Today however, intellectually challenged youngsters who have completed the training become trainers themselves. Too much information is disastrous to the intellectually challenged person; therefore training done by the intellectually challenged is specific and the perfect solution. It also adds to the comfort and receptiveness of new trainees and bolsters the confidence and skills of the trainer. This peer-to-peer education sets Sugandha’s program apart from other schools for the intellectually challenged. The training period lasts a minimum of six months and can take up to two years depending on the youngster’s ability. The first batch of ten trainees prepared for a year before going to work for Tata teleservices. Sugandha has now trained 123 youth at her Bangalore, Delhi, and Mandya Centers, and 91 are working. Three have realized their potential to study further and after finishing 12th grade have enrolled into an animation program. One girl on getting her certificate got married and is a productive included with her new family. Sugandha has now set up three more centers in Bangalore; two in Chennai; one in Mandya and Delhi; and one in Wayanad, Trivandrum, Ujjain (MP), Khed, Nagpur, and Sangli—16 AMBA CEEICs in all. One hundred and fifty-five more youngsters with intellectual challenges are in the process of being trained and will be placed before the next financial year. In March 2009 she is slated to start many more centers in India and in Sweden, Syria, and Duba. God willing!

Sugandha ensures that the corporations and government agencies that hire her trainees do not exploit or underpay them. She negotiates for entry-level salaries, which, while lower than those paid to normal employees, are fair and competitive. While they are working in the center’s protective job environment, Sugandha pays trainees a fair stipend.

Sugandha’s strategy brings together government agencies, the armed forces, corporations, and COs, which, along with participants and their families, become stakeholders in training, placing, and supporting young people as they become employed. AMBA boasts over 400 volunteers. Having worked in the aviation sector, the armed services and the Department of Information Technology, Sugandha leveraged her contacts to procure the space she needed to set up her centers. India’s armed forces and the COs she collaborates with have the advantage of being permanent, safe, and well equipped. Sugandha signs memoranda of understanding with every collaborator to ensure the stability of the centers and to make sure that changing political or bureaucratic situations do not affect their functioning. Her corporate partners are also helping her to raise money for her programs.

Starting with the Air Force-AMBA-Intel CEEIC, which is located in the Air Force Training Command Headquarters in Bangalore, Sugandha has expanded to 16 AMBA CEEICs in ten places in six states in India in just four and a half years.




THE PERSON

Sugandha grew up in a military family and learned to deal with personal loss at a young age. She always admired the strength and courage of her mother, who raised Sugandha and her sister as a single parent. She has also long admired Air Marshal Denzil Keeler, who has been a mentor and an inspiration to her. He taught her to challenge herself as much as possible, something she has taken on as a personal goal and a goal for the intellectually challenged people she works with. 

Sugandha first encountered intellectually challenged young people when she worked with 26 Indian states on the Board of Special Olympics. For the Special Olympics in INDIA, she introduced wheel-chair participation (earlier only the physically able were allowed), convinced the Board to make participation free instead of charging athletes and  supported the Board of Special Olympics in raising ten million rupees to pay stipends to  Indian participants who won accolades at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland in 2003.

This experience helped her when she started AMBA in 2004. Her decision to focus on economic empowerment through low-skill IT jobs stemmed from her experience working in the Indian government’s department of information technology. She also worked for Deccan Aviation. The collective experience enabled her to understand the structure of the corporate world and the language of negotiation, skills that now serve her well as she works with industry leaders to bring every opportunity to the intellectually challenged community.




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