‘From computer science to football, there is nothing a visually impaired cannot do’ Sunil J. Mathew, SRVC
If one were to drive into Cochin’s Info Park there’s an endearing sight that catches ones eye. Nestled among the Tatas, Cognizants and Wipros, on the ground level of the Vismaya Building is the Rotary Club Cochin Global – Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged’s centre. While they may not boast the large and opulent spaces that some of the big names have, it’s who makes up the SRVC environment that sets them apart. Visually impaired people between 15 and 45 years of age attend classes at SRVC to acquire and improve skills that will help them get jobs.
SRVC has students who are either visually challenged from birth or are blind following an incident/disorder. These students stay in hostels meant for them or outside in Paying Guest accomodations. The training they receive in SRVC is diverse and includes data entry, telemarketing, music, medical transcription, food tasting (tea tasting, wine tasting, etc), assaying (fragrances, essential oils and extracts etc), counselling and physiotherapy.
SRVC started in the early 2000s and became a registered NGO in 2002 under the initiative of Sunil J. Mathew and M.C. Roy. “I was researching on how to employ the vast number of the visually challenged in the country (India has the world’s largest blind population of 37 million as per the WHO stats) when the IT revolution which helped my career take off gave the idea to start a training and rehabilitation centre for the visually challenged sector. With ‘screen access reader’ text-to-audio software’s, the opportunities to employ the sector in back office, call centre jobs etc increased” starts explaining Sunil.
Sunil is the Founder of the design and software company Systica Systems Pvt. Ltd. (an eight people team which includes a blind programmer) and decided to bring his expertise in IT to SRVC. “Initially, we only conducted summer camps, inviting employees from IT companies and other experts from the sector. Then in 2008 we go t a comfortable office, with plenty of space, good equipment, all fully founded. We started getting students insix or eight month batches.”
After a few years, the duo decided to expand the courses to non-IT topics, “because not everybody is comfortable with computer tasks.” Here is where M.C.’s passion for music came in and SRVC’s very own orchestra was born. “We’ve had concerts where the audience was completely unaware that musicians were blind and got shocked when they found it out at the end of the performance!”
Gradually the centre has increased it’s scope of activities. SRVC students are increasingly finding employment opportunities in other fields like data entry, telemarketing, callcentres etc.
Another feather in the SRVC cap is their football team. “In 2013 we put together a national squad and participated to a seven-team international blind football championship in Thailand. We got to the semi-finals and it was a great achievement considering that we were a very recent crew competing with experienced teams like Iran, which is number five in the world.”
There’s even allied activities like reflexology. “One of our former students is an excellent masseur and decided to leverage on his skills to start his own massage centre, which now employs other four visually impaired people” tells us Sunil.
The percentage of students that graduate from SRVC and find employment is quite high and stands at 65%. Various corporate houses have partnered with them to recruit people for call centres, admin, etc.. “To give you an idea, it once happened that after sending some of our graduated to the telecom company Idea, they were so happy that the following year they wanted to recruit the entire batch!” Many others have found employment in sectors like laundry, food and beverage tasting, and some have even become members of a permanent music orchestra in a five star hotel in Cochin. The remaining 35 per cent who don’t find employment through SRVC generally go back to jobs they were already doing, which mainly include teaching and training.
So how does SRVC manage to keep its operations running? The centre has sustained itself through donations and sponsorships either from individual or CSR activities. “We’ve finished about 10 batches in the last eight years and due to high demand we’ve opened our second centre in December 2014, where we run short courses of four months. We focus on English orientation and intro to computer science” says a proud Sunil.
However, it has been a long and arduous journey. Sunil explains that beside financial constraints that many non-profits go through, it has been difficult to overcome the mindset that visually impaired people are not able to perform regular jobs. On the one hand, many parents are uncomfortable sending their visually challenged sons and daughters away from home; on the other, employers are not willing to accept them in their team. He argues that, “In the past 12 years we’ve gathered a great pool of very talented people, and after this long experience I feel entitled to say that generally employers do not understand the potential of visually impaired people.” In other cases, he continues,“we have people who tell us they want to join our courses because they are not comfortable at home and their parents don’t know what to do with them.”
The question about what has motivated him so much in these years is not new to Sunil, “Many people ask us where we find the time. I think we all have time it’s just that some don’t want to see that. People who want to do charity don’t need anything, they just do it. The strenght of the people we work with leaves no alternative.” When asked whether he has ever thought of giving up, he replied, “In fact, I though of giving up my job and dedicate all my time to this!”