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How AMBA uses technology to empower the intellectually disabled

Sindhu MV & Shivani Dave
20th Jun 2016
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This article has been sponsored by Intel as part of its Ek Kadam Unnati Ki Aur (EKUKA) Heroes campaign

Mutheshwari, a data entry operator, is teaching Geethanjali the basics of filling a form for a back-office operation. A little away, Cegeo Thekkel, team leader, is supervising the work of more than 30 such data entry operators who have earned themselves a reputation for meeting all client-related Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with 100 percent accuracy.

You may be tempted to dismiss this as a ho-hum happening but what is going on is extraordinary. All these protagonists are intellectually disabled, with an IQ less than 65, according to scientific definitions. But that’s the least of their identity today, thanks to AMBA, an organisation that works for the empowerment of adults with intellectual disabilities.

The adaptive training methodology developed by AMBA, using information technology (IT), helps intellectually disabled adults learn back-office operations such as data entry, thereby putting them on the road to dignity and a sustainable livelihood. What has AMBA done differently to achieve this? With intelligent use of technology, its pioneering visual matching, and functional learning curriculum, when tutored by peers, enables the intellectually disabled to execute low-skill IT jobs.

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Multiple challenges

The impact of this model is multi-fold. Says AMBA founder Sugandha Sukrutaraj, “Intellectually disabled people often face different kinds of abuses, and are often considered as a burden. By capitalising on their potential, their strength, we help them become earning members of their families and thus lead their life more independently. When they become contributors to their families, to society, they live a life of dignity they so rightly deserve.”

“Intellectually disabled people often face different kinds of abuses, and are often considered as a burden. By capitalising on their potential, their strength, we help them become earning members of their families and thus lead their life more independently. When they become contributors to their families, to society, they live a life of dignity they so rightly deserve.”

There is a beautiful quote displayed at AMBA’s workspace: The only disability in life is a bad attitude. When Jeet Bopanna turned up here 12 years ago, there wasn’t much he was capable of doing, considering his mild intellectually disability and an IQ score of 56.25. Due to low self-esteem, he would also limit his interaction only with people he knew well.

But he did have the right attitude. Today, as the Peer Director, Training, Supervision, Quality Control, Accounts, at AMBA, 36-year-old Jeet handles his many responsibilities with pride and panache. Talking about how his day pans out, he says, “I open all the doors and ensure everything is in place before people start coming in. Once they do, I lead the exercise activity and other morning routines. Then I take care supervising the work of the team leaders, clear doubts and even manage the accounts.” His parents say, “We never had any aspirations or hope for Jeet's future. That changed when he joined AMBA. Today, Jeet is an independent person who is able to think for himself. The years he spent at AMBA has helped to boost his confidence level immensely and enable the transformation.”

Jeet’s is a powerful story, and it is just one of the many for AMBA. In fact, there is so much that the intellectually challenged are able to achieve if given the right support and environment. They are in fact, the heroes of their own stories. And making this possible are AMBA’s three key factors – the hub-and-spoke model, a peer-to-peer learning methodology and the use of computers.

Watch this endearing video, about AMBA, its people, and its heroes like Jeet and discover why their stories are inspiring.

The power of peers…

To reach out and impact intellectually disabled individuals across the country, AMBA has adopted a hub-and-spoke model to share their methodology and framework with institutions working with the disabled. And partnering with special needs institutions, it employs the use of peer trainers (adults with intellectual disability who are experienced in the job) to foster a supportive and encouraging environment. Intellectually challenged adults joining AMBA benefit from learning and working with their peers, helping with their development and state of well-being.

As Sugandha puts it, “Peer-to-peer learning is one of our greatest success drivers. Today, we have more than 225 partner centres and our experience shows that we have been able to achieve this reach only because of the peer trainers. Even stray experiments of using the expertise of special educators have not borne such spectacular results. Ordinary people like us become a source of distraction for the intellectual disabled, and the impact is diluted. But with a peer, that is not the case.” Every intellectually disabled person at AMBA becomes and is a peer trainer.

… and technology

The third factor – use of computers – Sugandha exclaims, is “a brilliant tool”. The AMBA learning model uses innovative teaching methodologies, using IT for training intellectually disabled adults to perform back office data entry tasks for industry.

“For people with moderate to severe intellectual disability, with limited social skills, limited acumen to work in mainstream, and limited financial resources, is very difficult to find employment. That’s where Information and Communications technology (ICT) plays a major role. Without ICT, without computers, it would be tough for them to find a source of sustainable livelihood,” Sugandha points out.

UN recognition

AMBA prides itself for what it says is a one-of-a-kind successful model, which has even been recognised by the United Nations and the founder awarded the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship.

Today, it is just not the beneficiaries and their families who have profited from AMBA. A number of corporate and government bodies that outsource their work speak highly of work done here, where intellectually disabled individuals deliver with 100 percent accuracy in a world that is seeing increasingly fractured attention spans. Delicious irony that.

So far, AMBA has impacted over 6,000 individuals, enabling them to live a life of dignity, of which some 1600 have become earning members in their families. And over 450 have been integrated into mainstream roles.

Denial is the biggest hurdle

So what is the biggest hurdle AMBA has encountered? “Denial,” says Sugandha vehemently. “Denial at every level. Denial by parents to give their children a chance to do what they can. Denial by clients about the capabilities of the intellectually challenged. Denial within society about their ability.”

Today, AMBA is focusing on partnering with organisations, aiming to impact the lives and careers of at least 1,50,000 intellectually disabled people by 2020. And, while that will require greater support and collaboration with corporates, funding agencies, partner organisations, it’s time for society itself to tear away its carapace of denial and help fellow humans find their place in the sun.

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