Disability is no more a road blocker

In a developing country like India, entrepreneurship is about fostering innovation and the success that has been achieved through years of hard work and diligence. India needs numerous social entrepreneurs with innovative solutions to solve society’s most pressing social problems in the areas of sanitation, education, water conservation, gender bias, primary health, female feticide, carbon emissions and other environmental issues.

As individual entrepreneurs work hard to bring about community change, they too need a robust platform that recognizes their efforts and helps them advance their initiatives in diverse locations across the country. With this in mind, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation came together in 2010 to promote social innovation in India through the Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) India Award. Meera Shenoy, Founder of Youth4Jobs in Hyderabad, has been nominated as a finalist for this year’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) India Award 2022 from among 100 different submissions, 60% of which are women.

Youth4Jobs works from the ground up to change the lives of people with disabilities by empowering them and connecting them to sustainable livelihoods. Today it is a “system changer” with a pan-Indian presence, scale and impact, transforming attitudes and lives. Y4J has reached 9.3 million homes in 28 states, 8 union territories, 12,026 villages, 579 districts and 3,452 mandalas. It sets up “SwarajAbility”, an AI-driven accessible job platform for young people with disabilities.

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Due to the phenomenal contribution Meera Shenoy has made to the community by educating and employing people with disabilities, here is her exclusive interaction with The Hans India.

Speaking of her journey with Y4J, Meera says, “I used to work in the corporate world and then moved into business media and television. There came a day when I said to myself every day, it’s not enough to capture these stories in print or on camera. I have practical work to do. And when the desire to do something is strong, the universe conspires to make it happen. Thus began my ten year journey to work with disadvantaged youth and connect them to livelihoods – first in rural and tribal youth in a senior government position, then at the World Bank and the UN in their poverty alleviation projects. Then, in February 2012, I decided to work with the most vulnerable youth – youth with disabilities.”

Speaking about the purpose of founding Y4J, she said: “When I founded Youth4Jobs 10 years ago, I thought about how compassion and business can be combined to make a difference in the lives of the poor. As I looked at the statistics, the sheer scale of the disability issue stunned me. 1 in 7 in the world is disabled. Your level of education is low; employment is barely 30%. They are poor and strain on limited family resources. Can I develop myself for the country and the world? A model for scaling up in this space, I asked myself. The vision was to take people with disabilities and their families out of the cycle of poverty and into a virtuous circle of opportunity by educating them best for the needs of businesses and associated her with them The Right to PmD Act 2016 states that education and employment are a right for people with disabilities. I have recognized that access to skills, jobs and livelihood opportunities is the need of the hour to ensure vulnerable people such as people with disabilities are not left behind.”

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Speaking of the challenges and roadblocks, Meera said: “The biggest challenge has been the mindset of the village communities, businesses and universities. For example, we went to the villages – we saw young people, but where were young people with disabilities? And when we met parents, they shook their heads in disbelief. Then special education teachers were hard to come by for our training centers as most of them went abroad. We needed to create specific content in sign language for the speech and hearing impaired and businesses – Yes, they knew our previous work. But when they came to our training centers, they asked questions like, “Are you healthy? can they work Will my non-disabled employees be alerted? We were surrounded by CANNOTs. We worked on changing that ‘can’t’ to ‘can’.”

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Regarding the impact of Y 4J, Meera says: “We reached 9.2 million village households with the message of ability with disabilities. 32,045 youth with disabilities from all states of India including Jammu and Kashmir have been trained. Third-party studies show that once the unemployed youth starts earning, they save and send money home. They help pay off the high costs of family debt, buy assets like property, raise their younger siblings, and take care of their health. The impact is how a job for a youth with a disability turns the youth from a burden to a contributing family member.

The impact on women with disabilities is magical. It also has a voice in financial discussions. Sexual exploitation has decreased by 23%. She inspires and guides other women with disabilities.

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