GE manager Sumit Singh Gandhi: giving a voice to India's speech and hearing impaired population through 'Sounds of Silence'
We take the ability to speak and hear for granted. Imagine not being able to hear a loved one call you by name, listen to sound of the wind rustling through leaves, strains of beautiful music or the laugh of a baby. What’s it like to be voiceless? All thoughts and feelings screaming inside, waiting to be come out. You can open your mouth, but the sounds won’t come out. Exact numbers are difficult to get, but between 5 and 15 million individuals in India suffer from a hearing impairment, and the number of persons with a speech impairment could be similar.
Sumit Singh Gandhi (SSG) was in Amritsar, Punjab volunteering with an NGO called Pingalwara when he first encountered the speech and hearing impaired population from close quarters. They left a deep impression on him, and he decided to start a non-profit Sounds of Silence (SOS) to change their lives through the use of a cell-phone. Initially started as pilot in 2008, the project really took off in October, 2009 when they began to ramp up operations. Currently, SOS has 100 volunteers, with only two of whom, other than Gandhi, being full-time. They have plans to expand operations beyond Mumbai to cities like Pune, Bangalore and Chennai. SocialStory’s Nelson Vinod Moses (NVM) interacted with Gandhi over email. Gandhi speaks about his moment of reckoning, SOS’ teaching methodology, use of cell-phones, current impact and future plans.
NVM: What and when were inspired to start ‘Sounds of Silence’?
Gandhi: This idea of training deaf and mute children using typed communication through SMS struck me whilst pursuing my MBA at SP Jain Institute of management. I was working with a deaf and mute orphanage called Pingalwara in June 2008. Being a manager at heart I absolutely couldn’t live without communication and I had to find some means of ‘talking’ to the speech and hearing impaired children. I took out my phone and started typing questions to the kids and they started replying by typing answers as well. I realized that this was my calling. I had to help these differently abled children shed their inhibitions and interact with the outside world with confidence.
I then spent two years talking to deaf and mute schools, orphanages, NGOs, audiologists, psychologists, teachers and corporates who would like to employ my children (deaf and mute kids that SOS planned to train). After gaining substantial information I started Sounds Of Silence.
NVM: How difficult was it to launch SOS and what have been the challenges so far?
Gandhi: The challenges were:
1.The biggest hurdle during the start-up was reaching out to people and building awareness. Luckily, volunteers helped us spread the initiative like wild fire and within days people who wished to be the change in society, joined hands with us.
2.Funding has been a major hindrance so far. Our founding team has been personally financing the the project along with a few external supporters. We’d like to thank our partners Domino’s, General Electric, SBarro and ONGC for their help.
3.Another challenge faced by our team was to convince deaf and mute schools and NGOs to adopt the SMS training communication model for personality and communication training . A lot of teachers and principals thought that introduction to technology would do more harm than good. But in the long run, our precise training model and listed precautions devised by psychologists helped in convincing the schools and orphanages
NVM: What problem are you trying to solve?
Gandhi: The hearing impaired in India face many problems in self-development and communication. This also leads to discrimination against them. Due to lack of education and training, they have a hard time getting a job. To help them earn a living, even the best of schools for the deaf still teach them only book-binding and pottery. This isn’t sustainable. We want to empower them with technology to express themselves and become independent. We feel that a speech and hearing impaired child in India who is trained to become a potter or a carpenter achieves great heights and could go on to become a corporate professional or even a famous writer.
NVM: How can a cellphone change the life of a hearing impaired child?
Gandhi: What we do in SOS is very simple. We give sound to the deaf and voice to the mute by teaching kids to use mobile phones. We are the first NGO to leverage mobile technology and SMS for the education and overall development of these under privileged children. We decided to leverage some mobile technologies to empower the kids who are hearing and speech impaired. This opens up new ways for them to communicate in ways other than textbooks and sign language and this helps them express themselves and feel like ‘normal’ kids of their age.
NVM: What has been the impact so far?
Gandhi: Recently we were awarded the World Education Summit Award 2013 for bringing Innovation in Education using Mobile Technology. We also won an award for innovation in education using mobile technology at Vodafone and DEF mBillionth South Asia Award 2013. Nine schools in Mumbai and Delhi have adopted the SOS curriculum that have lead to more than 450 kids being SOS empowered.
Students trained under us can send upto 100 SMS per day. Their IQ level has gone up from 65 to 93. We have provided employment to five students in Cetking an institute for MBA preparation, and Major Brands, a company that manages all top brands like ALDO, Mango etc. Café Coffee Day, Sbarro and Starbucks are ready to hire our kids post their training.
NVM: How are your efforts funded?
Gandhi: Initially it was a self funded organization, we raised a huge amount through various fund raising events where we got enormous support from individuals and companies like Taj Hotels, Zycus, Convonix, Indian Express etc. We have recently signed a deal with General Electric and ONGC to support our expansion plans.
NVM: How do you plan to scale?
Gandhi: At the moment we are also planning to incorporate laptop training sessions in our curriculum to enhance their skills and to keep in sync with the use of QWERTY phones and computers. Our main objective is to break a social stereotype wherein deaf and mute children find it difficult to openly communicate with people due to lack of exposure and proper training. Our mission would be accomplished the day we create self sustainable deaf and mute communities who can communicate and type much more effectively than any of us.
By December 2013, we plan to spread out across all major cities like Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, and eventually go international. We also aim to setup the first hearing impaired chat based BPO that should be operational by February 2014.
NVM: What of the future of SOS?
Gandhi: We train the young hearing impaired adolescents who have completed their education but have not yet been able to get them jobs. We train them over a two month training program which includes basic communication and a professional course to enhance their interpersonal skills.
The chat based BPO would provide them sustainable white collared jobs to be independent in life. The idea is to establish ‘Chat Query’ buttons that will cater to basic day-to-day queries for our clients like Makemy trip, Dominos , Sbarro etc where in addition to the helpline we offer a 24*7 chat based customer care support which will be managed by the hearing impaired.
In Doda District in Jammu and a small village in Karnataka there are more than 340 families who are hearing impaired, kids are born with the inability to hear and speak, they are called the “Silent Village”. Most of the affected persons are above 20 years of age. We plan to setup our BPO and also training centers there to facilitate better living standards.
NVM: How do you handle a full-time job and managing SOS?
Gandhi: No doubt it is tough to manage a full time job and SOS, but if you have the passion for it it works out.
It is all about managing your time well and doing the right thing at the right time. People will count their days in terms of hours and week in terms of days, but the point is every week has 168 hours and all you need to do is make the best use of each hour each minute.
Learn more about SOS here.