India #2: The power of changemakers for disability

Multiple people standing on a stage in purple, pink lighting. There is Hindi writing in the background. Various men wear traditional Indian schals and hand an award to a female social entrepreneur.

This is my second blog post on my 8-day research journey to New Delhi, India. The first one was more on the experience of travelling in India with a visual disability, this one is more about the research I did there and the people I met.

This trip was quite different form my journey to Uganda. In Uganda, I mostly met with other researchers, whereas in India, my focus was on people on the ground: social entrepreneurs, NGOs and companies with a social mission.

Before I tell you more about India, please allow me to take a quick detour and introduce you to a research field that I’ve been involved with for almost 12 years now: social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship aims to solve social and environmental issues that have so far not been addressed at all or not very well (Dees, 1998). One of the best-known examples is probably Grameen Bank and microcredits. Back when Grameen Bank started, microcredits were designed for the poor who otherwise have no access to credit.  The idea is that by providing people small credits, they can empower themselves and generate income. If you want to find out more, there are many articles online about social entrepreneurship or you can read my book  :-).

I was drawn to this research field as it is full of examples of amazing individuals and teams that don’t just talk the talk but walk the talk. They dedicate themselves to a cause and aim to enhance people’s lives or protect nature. In the past, my research only looked at social entrepreneurship examples in Western Europe. The main reason for that was pragmatism. I didn’t have funding for my PhD and thus couldn’t afford to travel far and wide to explore social entrepreneurship around the globe. But it was always my wish to gain more understanding into social entrepreneurship in the Global South. And of course, what better way to do it than combining my passion for social entrepreneurship with my passion for advancing the lives of people with disabilities?

So back to the main story: Traveling around India and meeting many social entrepreneurs just confirmed my belief in the power of changemakers. For me, it’s not just the amazing work people have done, but it is also the way they talk about it: the passion, the drive, the “support me or get out of my way” mentality. Disability social entrepreneurs in Delhi don’t “just” face the typical challenges of lack of funding and other forms of support but they face an additional challenge: stigma.

Stigma can be rooted in religious and spiritual beliefs, in societal practices of “othering” but most often is a result of lack of knowledge. The experience of stigma can be anything from a look to being ostracised from your community or looked away, denied schooling or unable to find work not because of what you can’t do but because of what people think you can’t do.

In India, disability stigma is still everywhere, but thanks to so many changemakers on the ground, things are improving. For instance, PlanetAbled who I wrote about in my previous blogpost have just a week ago been awarded a big tourism award in India, recognising that sustainable tourism can’t exist without inclusive tourism.

One of the major local issues is unemployment. I spoke to multiple founders who support people with disabilities in their economic empowerment. One venture trains people with disabilities to start their own businesses, while another equips them with the skills to work in some of the largest firms in Delhi. I heard stories about a disabled man who hadn’t left his house in twelve years and now employs five people in his business. Other reports talked about the work that needs to go into educating and raising disability awareness in firms so that they are willing to even consider hiring someone with a disability. One organisation alone managed to place over 10,000 people with disabilities into jobs within ten years of being founded. And they do so from buildings that aren’t yet finished, from their own homes or in the slums of New Delhi.

These are the examples we need to learn from. My job and that of other researchers is to understand how they do what they do so successfully and then support them. And ideally: take their insights to other countries that face similar challenges. For me, this is the core of challenge-led research. There is no point in doing research if it won’t benefit people in the end. Now I need to start analysing all of the data, add some more and then write up a research paper on it.

Dees, G. (1998). The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship (PDF)

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