38 years ago, Dr P Hanumanth Rao started a small centre in a garage to treat and rehabilitate the disabled. Today, through four different NGOs, Dr Rao runs India’s biggest establishment for the disabled. He’s brought light in the lives of 58 lakh people suffering from physical and mental disability, besides starting numerous educational institutions and research centres to trained individuals in disability management.Through his unmatched effort in the field of managing and curing the disabled, he’s earned himself a reputation, and continues to inspire many in India and outside.
Enabling the disabled
According to WHO, 15 per cent of the world’s population has a mental or a physical disability, and 80 per cent of these people live in the developing world. Given the socio-economic conditions of underdeveloped and developing countries, disabled people here almost always receive poor treatment with little to no access to basic resources.
With lack of social awareness, disability becomes a curse. In more aware countries,disability is just another medical condition, which can be cured or improved over time with proper care and attention. Those suffering from disability do not lack confidence. All they need is someone to encourage them, treat them as equals and not with pity.
Rao’s life has been a living testament to what can be done to help the disabled find their place and dignity in society. It is hard to believe, but over the past 38 years, he has served 58 lakh people suffering from disability, directly or indirectly.A child specialist living in Hyderabad, Rao has dedicated his whole life to the cause of helping the disabled find a better life. He’s established a system that, on a daily basis, works with thousands to make them self-sufficient.
Like every inspiring journey, Rao’s hasn’t been an easy one. He has seen it all, from unfathomable circumstances to tireless struggles; from threats and humiliation to complete rejection. But what’s kept him going is his undying courage, hard work and ability to work for a cause greater than himself.
From comfort to struggle
Born in Hyderabad’s old town, Rao’s father and two uncles were medical practitioners. There were few medical facilities available back in the 1940s. His family wanted him to become a practitioner, too, so he helped them run their 45-bed nursing home.
I belonged to a well-respected and affluent family. We lived in a joint family, and had every facility at home. I studied in Mufeed-Ul-Anam High School. Back in those days, I drove a car to school. Those were the best days, with nothing to worry about.
Young Rao wanted to go beyond his family’s expectations of becoming a traditional medical practitioner, and become a doctor. His dedication and hard-work paid off when he got into Kakatiya Medical College in Warangal.
Immediately afterwards, his life took a negative turn. His joint family fell apart, and their economic condition worsened. Rao was now responsible for four brothers and four sisters. Although he wished to study further and become a child specialist, his father wanted him to start practicing immediately after his degree. Caught between responsibility and passion, he made what he calls the most important decision of his life. He decided to study further and send Rs 600 to his family every month, which was all of the money he received as stipend. He was able to continue the pursuit of his MD degree.After his master’s degree, he decided to get into a niche area to specialise in. Rao recalls how, during those days, there were few child specialists in town, but none who had specialised in helping disabled children. Whether it was mental or physical disability, there was a general lack of child specialists working in the field. He had witnessed the amount of trouble parents of these children had to go through to find quality medical facilities.
Back in those days, there were only four child specialists in Hyderabad. I could have made a lot of money and enjoyed a relaxed life, but I wanted to work for disabled children, and that was reason enough to continue.
As he started practicing, he realised the task of working with disabled children was not simple. It is beyond traditional medical practice and needs much more attention, expertise and training. He found out that the ‘All India Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’ in Mumbai offered a special course in the field, and enrolled for it. His stay in Mumbai exposed him to the importance and need for the mammoth task he had undertaken.
Rao returned to Hyderabad to start working, and finished his PhD in Psychology from Osmania University, Hyderabad.
In 1977, Rao started the first centre for disabled children. Back then, there were very few institutions working in the field. Rao’s institution was started in a small garage in the Kolsawadi area of the city with two staff members and five kids to take care of. This garage laid the foundation of – what was to become – the biggest facility for rehabilitation, treatment, training and research for disability in India.
In a discussion with YourStory, Rao says, if there was a disabled child, the family kept him hidden from the rest of the world. Disability was seen as a curse, and a punishment for the sins committed by the child in her previous birth. Mentally disabled children and adults were tied in chains and kept in closed rooms. Even affluent members of the society were unaware that better management for disability is possible. This general lack of awareness was common everywhere.
Our garage was in an affluent locality. There were many houses in the neighbourhood. The neighbours didn’t like the idea of a disability centre in the locality. They even attacked our staff and children, trying to scare us away. They tried everything to get rid of the centre, but couldn’t.
According to Rao, during the ’70s and ’80s, even the medical community lacked the general sense of awareness to treat mental and physical disability. They were taught a little on disability during their MD courses, but it was not enough. He chose to tread the path less travelled, and touched lives of those who, back then, due to lack of social awareness, were considered untouchables.
Sweekaar, Upkaar, Aashray, Suraksha
In 1981, the Indian Army allocated a sizable piece of land in Secunderabad to Rao, to help him start his centre. To fight the cause of making the mentally disabled kids socially acceptable and work for their treatment and rehabilitation, he started an NGO called ‘Sweekaar,’ meaning ‘acceptance’.Back then, no one was willing to accept a mentally disabled child. People believed that if a mentally disabled child is born to the family, the family will spiral down into never-ending chaos. The advancements done by science and medicine had not reached them either. We decided to accept these kids and try to provide them a better life.
Rao does not hesitate to say that fellow practitioners of medicine did not approve of his social concern. For many of them, medicine was a science with no social responsibility. They used to say, “Working with the madmen, Rao will soon go mad himself.”
Nine years later, Rao decided to expand the facilities for physically disabled children and adults, as well. He also started centres to help people quit drug addictions, and counsel those undergoing mental troubles due to family matters.
Following the model of ‘Sweekaar,’ Dr Rao started three more NGOs – Upkaar (favour, to help the disabled), Aashray (shelter, to provide the disabled accommodation) and Suraksha (protection, for financial alleviation and safety from abuse and exploitation). All these four NGOs are independent, non-profit, non-commercial and voluntary organisations.
Working for the disabled for nearly four decades now, Rao realised that, not only in India, but, across the world, there was a general shortage of professionals trained in managing and treating the disabled. While more and more people needed help, there was a lack of skilled manpower. With the intent to enable more people join the cause, he started Bhagirathi Prayas.
Under the project, multiple schools were started to impart skills for management, treatment and rehabilitation of different types of disabilities. With 30 courses offered, thousands of skilled workers graduate from these institutions.When asked to advise new entrepreneurs, he said that all good work begins with people criticising you. Someone will call you corrupt. Others will call you mad. But a successful entrepreneur should never heed to these allegations and lose focus.
He also suggests that entrepreneurs or social workers should not take too much pressure at once. They should only take the amount of work they can bear. He also stresses on marketing, saying that good work should be projected well. If you are doing honest work, unless you let others know, it is only work half done.
Rao has received recognition and numerous awards for Bhagirathi Prayas, but has also been at the receiving end of many allegations.
Some people say I have done all of this to make loads of money. But they do not know the kind of sacrifices I and my family have made to make this possible. If we had not sacrificed our time, effort and hard work, then Sweekaar, Upkaar, Aashray and Suraksha wouldn’t have happened. They do not know how much we have toiled to set each of these projects going. They don’t know that to start these educational institutions, I have taken loan from 25 banks and many friends and family members. My own house is under mortgage, too.
It is the hard work and vision of Dr Hanumanth Rao that new centres have also started in Tandur, Kadapa and Guntur. The institution Rao started in a small garage has today evolved into a one-stop destination for every kind of disability across all age groups – for counselling, management, treatment and rehabilitation.