Supported Employment with a Difference

After several days apart, Aarti and Pratibha greet each other with a loud, “Hi! Good morning!” Pratibha to Aarti, “Where is your cap?” Aarti touches her head and realizes, she has forgotten to wear it. Pratibha draws the supervisor’s attention and a frantic search ensues to find a cap that Pratibha puts on Aarti’s head. And work continues. Aarti bursts into a loud screech. Others around the table shut their ears, laughing. She is `singing’ along with the song on the radio. All along, lots of vegetables are being cut and cleaned, the work, the camaraderie continues at full speed. All adults around the table have developmental disabilities. This is a morning at Arpan, a supported employment initiative being run by the Yash Charitable Trust in Mumbai, India. At this time, it is only one of it’s kind -­‐ in a city housing 18.41 million among them a significant number of adults with developmental disabilities.


India is a signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) which recognizes the right of persons with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others. Thus as a nation we are obliged to create opportunities for PWDs to be gainfully employed. However, the sad reality, particularly for individuals with developmental disabilities, is that these opportunities are few and far between.

There are misconceptions about the ability of individuals with developmental disabilities to perform jobs, or continue them; about productivity, about their adjustment to work place routines and so on. At Arpan (and as recently as last week) we often have visitors who are amazed that our team  members can run a mixer, or knead atta, or offer water or a drink on a tray, or water our plants and serve themselves off a buffet. We have heard often: “yeh log, yeh bhi kar sakte hain?

Supported employment is an effective way for individuals with developmental disabilities to work and keep a job. According to the World Association for Supported Employment, supported employment is characterized as paid work in integrated work settings with ongoing support for individuals with disabilities in the open labour market. Paid work for individuals means the same payment for the same work as for workers without disabilities. The focus in this model is on ability, not disability and therefore it enables persons with disabilities to enter the real world of work by focusing on individual strengths and by providing varying levels of individualized support, depending on needs. Importantly it leads to personal growth and an improvement in quality of life. Our team members at Arpan are always treated with respect and have a valued social role. They share the workplace, have great relationships with not only other team members, but in the community at large and have heightened self-­‐esteem.

Additionally, family members see their child become a contributing member of their community, they can perceive their son or daughter as a person with abilities and a future. Jamila Kagalwala’s daughter, Nazneen has been with us since our inception. She says: “Nazneen has changed so much over these last few years. She has become more responsible, interacts with others appropriately. I can’t tell you, I am just so happy!” The sentiment is echoed by Saeeda, Raees’ parent. “He talks all the time! And just loves to come to Arpan!”

Arpan is a supported employment initiative run by Yash Charitable Trust. It is a dabba service that provides freshly cooked meals (lunch) on a daily basis through the week. It is an integrated work place for eight adults with developmental disabilities, who work alongside their non-­‐disabled peers. The dabba service entails several different pieces/steps and as our team members begin their work here, they learn on the job and hone their skills along the way. They are supported in all aspects of the process by their supervisors and other team members. Supervisors who do not have a special education degree. These are kind and compassionate individuals who believe in an inclusive world.

A typical day at Arpan begins at 9.30 am  with preparation of raw  ingredients – this may also include        a visit to the local bhajiwallah to buy fresh produce or to the local grocer (yes, we support our local vendors) for other staple food items. The beginning of the day may also involve kneading atta for chapatis that go  into  the dabba. The jobs change depending on  the menu  for the day and  the menu  for the following day. At times there is a lot of ginger and garlic to clean and make paste. There may be several bunches of greens to clean and store. The preparation work is on-­‐going while other team members grind masala, help with the actual cooking or washing up. A team  member will write out        the names of customers on the bags for or pack the rice and the chapatis as they are being made. All   help with packing and finally with delivery. We eat lunch together at about 1.30 or so then help with  clean up. Our day ends by 3.00 pm or  so.

Several times a week, we extend our learning in other ways through learning new recipes, learning about composting and sustainable gardening, or just extending our learning through fun activities such as music or dance and cooking at Sanjeev Kapoor’s kitchen! Over the last two years we have participated in a couple of community based events such as the BSPCA event at Mahalakshmi racecourse, an NGO fair at NMIMS and autism awareness events.

Challenges in running a supported employment such as ours are many. For one, space precludes us from taking on more team members. Second we want to operate in a way that provides our team members suitable employment and not grow the business at the cost of their well-­‐being at the work place. Since we have among our team, persons with autism and other developmental disabilities, we work slowly. It is not in the best interest of our team to rush, or create chaos. If we have to grow the business, we need more space. Our salaries are a huge expense and we try to make ends meet by soliciting donations from well-­‐wishers.

However, at the end of the day, the smiles and the camaraderie and the fun is all totally worth it. We do what we do because we value each of our team members and what they bring. They show us resilience, and the ability to move out of their comfort zone within a safe and nurturing environment. They show us that they can and that their quality of life is certainly enhanced because of their work at Arpan. What greater rewards can there be?