By Joan Leotta
Known to his English and American audiences by his first name only, Ferose Velloparampil Rasheed — or simply, Ferose — is a champion of disability rights in India. Though presently residing in the United States, he remains at the forefront of the movement to increase inclusion awareness in his homeland. Ferose’s efforts have resulted in an improved understanding of the abilities of people identified as “with disabilities”, a shift he hopes to see gain even more momentum in the workplace in India. In an interview with SMG, this game-changer gave insight into his labor of love, the cultural shifts that come with inclusivity and the vision of the India Inclusion Summit.
SMG: In the essay on inclusion on your web page, you describe the work of the India Inclusion Summit, a community-driven initiative. Are you the founder?
Ferose: While I founded the initiative, it is truly community driven. Hundreds of volunteers spend their time and energy to make the event a possibility. We created a non-profit organization called the India Inclusion Foundation, where I am the managing trustee and have put a governance model to drive the topic of inclusion across the country. It is 100% community driven as there are no paid members in the foundation.
SMG: In the five years since organization was established, has disability inclusion improved in India? In the workplace? Socially?
Ferose: Our core idea of starting the foundation was to spread awareness. My personal realization was the “awareness” was the lowest common denominator to any challenge. By spreading awareness (on disabilities) we make people sensitive and sensitive people act towards improving the conditions. In India (and many parts of the world), people with disabilities are looked down upon and not included or integrated into society. In many cases, they are seen as a burden. There is a certain stigma attached and we need to fundamentally change that narrative. We should celebrate people’s differences instead of rejecting them for things they cannot do . The India Inclusion Summit is a celebration of the human spirit – of people overcoming odds in their own ways and making a difference. There are many ripple effects of the work we started. One of the ideas we incubated along with a non-profit, Enable India, was to support the creation of an employment manual for people with disabilities, which later led to the creation of an online academy. When a group of like- minded people, willing to make a change and share their personal journeys, come together we build a larger “goodwill network”. Every year, I hear so many heartwarming stories and the ripple effect of the movement is far and wide. During one of the earlier summits, we had launched the documentary of India’s relatively unknown Deaf and Mute wrestler, Virender Singh – this opened up multiple opportunities and the documentary went on to win the National award! Also, one of the artists (on the autism spectrum) whose paintings we had used during the event went on to be part of the opening with the torch at the Rio Olympics! Sometimes providing the first opening/opportunity is the most important step.
SMG: On your website, http://indiainclusionsummit.com, you describe the steps your organization has undertaken to make inclusion a reality in India. You state: “I’m often asked how an event is going to bring about change? But it’s a four-step process that we’re looking at: the first being the event; second, building a community; third, driving sustainable projects, which will ultimately lead to the final stage of architecting the future”. Based upon this road map, by your estimation, what stage is the country in now?
Ferose: I have seen the topic of inclusion at different stages in different parts of the world. The US is a very progressive society, maybe only matched by the UK. India is still decades behind, especially rural parts compared to urban India. I believe the challenge is in changing mindsets and this can take a whole new generation. Being a technologist, I believe tech has a huge role to play in accelerating the inclusion movement across the world.
The India Inclusion Summit started as an annual event to celebrate our differences. While the event is a great platform to bring everyone together, we are now focused on building a community of people that is engaged and working all year round to drive Inclusion. With the Inclusion Fellowship that we started last year we are also looking at investing in various projects and initiatives that support inclusion. The goal is that through such fellowships we can scale the efforts in this space and also build a more tightly knit community working towards a common cause. Eventually such a community would be able to ‘architect the future’.
SMG: What is necessary then to move inclusion to the next level?
Ferose: Change is a collective process. Today different parts of the community are working in silos – the NGO’s, schools, government, civil society, corporations – all of them need to come together. India has the opportunity to leapfrog into a new inclusive world using the power of technology. But ONLY if everyone works together. Sadly, I don’t see a lot of emphasis on the topic of inclusion around the world – surprisingly, even at the United Nations level, supporting people with disabilities is not one of the Sustainable Development Goals!
SMG: Has your own experience of living in California influenced your strategy on dealing with disability in India, especially related to autism, which you say is not even recognized as a disability there?
Ferose: Yes, I moved to California to provide better care for my son. The experience has been fantastic. However, the special needs care depends entirely on the school district. Also, the costs are very high and I feel a need to democratize this – so every parent has access to the same facilities for their children.
After many years, the list of disabilities has been updated in India and autism is now one of the recognized disabilities. I am however speaking for everyone and every disability – not just autism alone. There has personally been a lot of learning for me in each area living here— whether it is the use of technology in diagnosis, learning, caregiving and job matching or the set-up of systems which allow for ‘time off’ for parents of children with disabilities or early mentorship and inclusive schools for education so that the children are better set up for employment. Of course, we are talking about a completely different scale in a country like India which comes with its own set of challenges and need for unique solutions. The family system and strong community network is a unique aspect of India. The west calls it “inter-Generational living.” In India, we have been practicing that for centuries!
SMG: Do you (in India Inclusion) partner with any national or international disability organizations to formulate goals and solutions to issues?
Ferose: Yes, we have partnered with Enable India, one of the leading NGO’s working in the disability space. While our focus is on awareness, we are now building a strong community of Inclusion Fellows, who would do the groundwork to find solutions for people with disabilities. We have also partnered with other corporations like ANZ, Allegis and CISCO.
SMG: Have you been able to measure your impact since the initiative began? Are there specific statistics, for instance, to indicate how many people with disabilities have gained employment?
Ferose: As I mentioned, our goal is to reach 10 million people with the message of inclusion by 2021 (10 years since we started!). While this is a bold goal, we are confident that we have built a network to amplify the message of inclusion via our various media, the majority of which are online.
SMG: Can you give us anecdotal examples of improvements in social inclusion—housing, accommodations, public transit, etc.?
Ferose: There are many examples – for instance, one of the employees at Sap Labs India,.who was hired as part of the Autism at Work initiative, got married last month. This is a huge step towards living a normal life like everyone else. There are many people who are working towards creating a safe assisted living environment for people with special needs – most of them are however largely driven by individuals.(Note: SAP stands for Systeme, Anwendungen und Produkte in der Datenverarbeitung; or Systems, Applications & Products in Data Processing. It’s a German-founded multinational software corporation that makes enterprise software to manage business operations and customer relations.)
SMG: You have written a book, GIFTED —how do you think that book has helped parents of children with autism and other disabilities?
Ferose: The purpose of writing the book was to share the stories of ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary hardships to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, in spite of the disabilities. The idea was to provide a platform for many unsung heroes. The book has become a bestseller and is now translated into four languages! Just like the Summit, the book is meant to celebrate the human spirit. To me, every time I receive a letter or note from a parent, a caregiver or a person with a disability that the book instilled new hope in them, I feel the book had its desired impact. If we managed to affect the life of even one person, I am satisfied. At the core, GIFTED is about providing hope – that understanding and the right opportunities can unleash the best out of anyone!
SMG: What is your ultimate goal related to disability inclusion at SAP? How do you think it has influenced other companies?
Ferose: SAP is already recognized is one of the most diverse and inclusive companies – we have won numerous accolades and are also the Inaugural Signatory for White House Tech Inclusion Pledge. SAP’s commitment came as part of President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Innovation Summit 2016.
As part of the Autism at Work program, our corporate goal, by 2020, is to employ 650 people on the autism spectrum. Currently, nearly 120 employees fill more than 20 different positions and the program is active in nine countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Ireland, South Korea, and the United States.
SMG: Is there anything else you would like to tell share with our readers about the work of inclusion in India?
Ferose: One of our realizations is that the best time to a person’s change mindset is at a younger age – so this year, we will focus on “Inclusion for Kids”. We are working on various dimensions – one of the areas we are working is to do a better matching for jobs. With the advancements in technology, we have the opportunity to connect people’s abilities with jobs instead of trying to fit people into a given job. Traditional hiring processes are fundamentally flawed in that we reject candidates for what they cannot do rather than select them for what they are good at. If we can change this, we can truly transform employment.