Print edition : February 11, 2011

At Mirakle Couriers, the hearing impaired men work in the field and the women operate the computers. - PICTURES: ANUPAMA KATAKAM

A courier company in Mumbai shows the way in providing employment for the hearing impaired.

IN the milling crowds of Mumbai, they stand apart with their orange T-shirts printed with the name Mirakle Couriers. Every day, during the busy hours of the working week, one sees them on the sidewalks, in public transport and elsewhere with large black bags slung on their shoulders. It would not be enough to say these courier delivery boys are different they are differently abled.

Mirakle Couriers is the only privately run, for-profit organisation in India that employs only hearing-impaired people. The company hires such young men and women from the underprivileged sections, trains them and puts them on a career path. The company is run like any other salaries are comparable with the rest of the industry and the workforce is given every right that a blue- or white-collar employee deserves.

For its pioneering work, this tiny courier company based in Mumbai's Churchgate area was recently given the National Award for the Empowerment of People with Disabilities by the Union Ministry of Social Justice. The award is given to outstanding employers of persons with disabilities as well as to the most outstanding employees with disabilities.

While the honour is definitely significant, it is Mirakle's positive belief, hard work and determination to survive in a cut-throat business that makes it truly noteworthy. Mirakle's story needs to be told for various reasons, one of the most important of them being that a private sector company with a sound business plan can employ the disabled and be successful.

Another is that employment for the disabled is a big issue in the country. A difference will be made only if employment is created by the corporate sector, and not just the government sector. Mirakle has shown that it can be done.

In India people with different abilities have been discouraged for a long time; as a result of this discrimination, there is a strong sense in their minds that they are not capable of anything. I am just using the word they' for reference, we are one team and there are no differences, says Dhruv Lakra, Mirakle Couriers' founder.

Adds Rohan Mehta, who handles marketing and media at Mirakle: Deafness is an invisible disability. People who are deaf can read, write and see so a courier company was a good idea as it doesn't require much speaking. Besides, the deaf have an excellent visual sense. They are very good at remembering roads, buildings and even faces, which is a good skill to have in the courier business.

Nitin Kamle, one of Mirakle's delivery boys.-

The intention is to help those with challenges, but we wanted it to be a full for-profit organisation so that we are not dependent on donors and other means of aid, says Lakra. The private sector has to realise that it also has a responsibility towards people with challenges. But more than that, there are disabilities that do not prevent persons having them from working in the mainstream. If the corporate sector recognises this, many more people will find a better means of livelihood.

If the private sector is given incentives to hire persons with disabilities, it might help the situation in India, Lakra suggests. He points out that the corporate sector in the United States and in several European countries have clear policies such as tax benefits for hiring the disabled. The Indian government needs to adopt such strategies, he feels.

Mirakle says on its website (www.miraklecouriers.com): We are not a charity but a social business, where the social element is embedded in the commercial operations. Our business model is based on creating a service-driven profitable enterprise that uses the deaf.

MIRACLES HAPPEN

Mirakle Couriers is Dhruv Lakra's brainchild. Following a stint with a non-governmental organisation in Tamil Nadu in the post-tsunami period, Lakra decided to find sustainable livelihood solutions for the less fortunate. Armed with a business degree in social entrepreneurship from Oxford, he came to Mumbai and conceptualised Mirakle.

At the time, my father met with an accident and could not walk anymore. It was this personal tragedy that made me realise how difficult it was for the disabled to cope in India. I decided to work with the deaf because they are a very big community and, save for hearing, they are capable of doing anything that a normal person does. Unfortunately, because of the impairment, they are not given many opportunities, says Lakra.

He says he was very clear that this would be a self-sustaining, profit-making company. Operations were flagged off in December 2008. Today 65 hearing-impaired people work in pick-up, delivery and back-end operations. While the men work in the field, the women operate the computers. The company hopes to train the men to take up supervisory and managerial positions as well.

Mirakle Couriers handles close to 65,000 shipments a month. Lakra says it has not been easy convincing companies to give his firm business. Corporates are reluctant to hire us as they are scared that parcels may not reach the destination or that we do not have adequate capabilities to handle important documents, he says. Furthermore, courier services are a ruthless business. However, we are good at what we do and have landed some big clients like Vodafone, Aditya Birla, Godrej and Boyce, and that has been extremely beneficial. As companies begin to realise their corporate social responsibility, they may show more interest in hiring us.

Mirakle has carefully worked on its operations and has fine-tuned logistics to provide a well-oiled and error-free system. Lakra says this was necessary because the work was to be carried out by persons with disabilities. Text messages on the mobile phone have been an extremely useful tool in their work. Yet there are problems that occasionally mar his employees' confidence such as not finding an address or run-ins with rude, insensitive watchmen or receptionists. Now the more experienced boys know how to handle these situations, he says.

SILENCE IS ORANGE

Walk in to the Mirakle Couriers office at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning and it is a beehive of activity. One would find men in orange T-shirts animatedly gesturing to convey messages and instructions to each another. Piles of documents are shifted and sorted, and loads of deliveries are put into bags. All this is done in happy silence. To a visitor, the absence of noise is disconcerting at first. But after a while, it is like any efficient business minus the noise. Soon the orange-clad boys head out for the addresses. The pick-up round is in the evening, says Rohan Mehta. Each boy covers a specified area and is very familiar with the locale. They take their jobs very seriously and have an amazing spirit and sense of responsibility, he says.

Nitin Kamle, one of Mirakle's delivery boys, says through an interpreter that the job has been really good from the start. He was born without hearing but that did not stop him from finding a job. He dropped out of school after Class VII and worked on the shop floor of a cola factory and later a petroleum company before joining Mirakle.

Earlier when people treated him badly, he would get a little anxious, says Kamle. But now he is more confident. He is doing his job well and that is all that matters.

Many of them have horrific tales to tell of their previous employers, says Vidya Iyer, who handles human resources at Mirakle. Physically and mentally shaken because they couldn't follow instructions; or passed over for a promotion because of the disability; or made to believe that the employers were doing them a favour by giving them work.

Mirakle Couriers handles close to 65,000 shipments a month.-

Vidya Iyer, who is also the chief interpreter, says the company places a lot of emphasis on training and empowering its staff to attain a certain level of confidence since many of them had been treated as second-class citizens for most of their lives.

In the initial years, Mirakle approached schools for the hearing-impaired to recruit staff. But over the past one year, potential candidates landed up at its office looking for work. As operations and the business grow, recruitment and training will naturally increase, says Vidya Iyer.

Although a business, Mirakle wears an educator's hat too. Many of the employees say they have completed Class X but when you test their level of knowledge, it is very poor, says Lakra. The company conducts reading and writing workshops for them on a regular basis.

Few statistics are available on the number of hearing-impaired people in the country. The National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) estimates that persons with disabilities represent 6 to 7 per cent roughly six to eight million of India's population of over one billion. However, Vidya Iyer says it is difficult to get the exact numbers, particularly from the rural areas.

Whatever the number, the problems the disabled face need to be addressed, says Javed Abidi, well-known disability rights activist and NCPEDP honorary director.

To begin with, there is a need to revamp the Disability Act of 1995, says Abidi. Although there is a move to amend it, it will take years before any major decision is taken, he says. For instance, issues such as access to employment in the private sector is practically non-existent.

Abidi notes that in 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ensured 3 per cent reservation for the blind, deaf and otherwise physically disabled in C category jobs essentially as clerks and attendants, never as officers. This remained unchallenged for two decades. Eventually, in 1995, the Disability Act came into place and the reservation was extended to A and B category (officer) jobs. However, he says, the number of disabled persons holding officer posts is negligible. We are not votaries of quotas but unless the private sector opens up, the disabled will not be able to find enough jobs, says Abidi. Anti-discriminatory policies have to be tougher in this country.

A survey conducted by the NCPEDP in 1999 on the number of disabled employed by private and public corporations gave a bleak picture. The private sector employed 0.28 per cent people with disabilities, while the public sector employed 0.54 per cent. Multinational corporations had hired only 0.05 per cent of the disabled in India although in their home countries they followed the rules prescribed. The corporate sector says it does not have enough feed or that the candidates do not meet the qualification criteria.

This brings us to the abysmal state of education for the disabled. If universities and colleges do not have wheelchair ramps, how do we encourage education? Abidi asks. And even if they overcome such hurdles to gain a degree, not many land jobs, he says. He cites the case of a hearing-impaired graduate from the premier National Institute of Design who alone did not receive a job offer through campus recruitment.

Clearly, a lot more awareness about and sensitivity towards those with challenges is needed. Meanwhile, it is up to organisations like Mirakle to show the way.

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