(IAP ’13) Priyanka Saha, ’14

About Priyanka’s IAP Project

Priyanka and her project partner, Angela, spent IAP in Bangalore, India. They worked with the beautiful people of EnAble India, a charitable trust that equips persons with disabilities with the training and resources needed to obtain employment. They developed a comprehensive design plan for building a specialized career building web portal. Priyanka also led workshops on assistive technologies developed at MIT and elsewhere.

 

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First blog post – January 3, 2013 (pre-internship)

Oh, Kolkata!

Originally posted on http://when-in-india.tumblr.com/ on January 3rd, 2013.

Just had a freshly-made, homecooked breakfast of chapatti and potatoes with scallions (Bengali version of homefries). Now that my stomach is content, I’m sitting next to my grandpa typing my first blog post as I wait for the hot water tank to warm up so I can take a shower. My grandpa is waiting impatiently for the India v. Pakistan cricket match on TV. From the open window next to the TV, I can hear the constant chatter of people in the streets and alleys, cars near and far blaring their horns as they squeeze through the impossible traffic, the sound of construction workers across the narrow alleyway, music playing from someone’s loud speakers in the distance, and the chirping of pigeons defiantly making themselves heard underneath all the chaos of man-made noise. This is Kolkata, the “cultural capital of India,” the city that never sleeps, the city in which the dust never settles, the city where my parents grew up, a city that, even from halfway across the world has managed to keep a tight hold on me and define much of who I am.

It’s been a few days since I arrived. I spent New Year’s day with my mom, grandpa, aunts, and cousin and took a drive around the city to see the holiday lights in Park Place and have dinner. The following day my mom and I went to the temple to wish for a good year ahead and then visited another aunt and uncle’s place. In the next few days, until I leave for Bangalore on Sunday to join Angela, I will visit more relatives. I only visit India once every few years so every minute I spend in Kolkata is about reuniting with family and reconnecting with myself.

On the bank of the Ganga at Dakshineshwar

My mom and I at the Dakshineshwar Mandir (temple)

Every time I come to Kolkata, I am reminded of all the people in my family who came before me and upon whose shoulders I stand to be where I am today and reach for even greater heights. I am reminded of the values, norms, and culture that my family adheres to. I am reminded of the life my parents led here until they moved to the states to start a new life with the hope for a better future for my sister who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of two. In a way, coming to Kolkata helps me re-center myself, realign my heart with my mind and reconfirm who I am before I venture out into the world. In fact, going back home to Seattle after yet another tough semester at MIT serves the same purpose — realigning with myself.

I leave for Bangalore on Sunday afternoon, where Angela and I will be spending a month working for EnAble India, a non-profit where people with disabilities are given the opportunities to discover their career potentials and realize economic independence. If you know anything about how difficult it is for a disabled person in the U.S. to find a job (ex: the unemployment rate for blind people in the U.S. is >70%!), it is even harder in India where people with disabilities not only face physical and mental challenges but also social prejudices and stigma.

Coming to India has always been about family, and this time is no exception. It’s been a long time since I’ve hoped to do something to give back to the place my parents left to build a brighter future for my sister, to make India a better place for people like my sister, and I’ve finally been given the opportunity to do so thanks to the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) and EnAble India.

I can’t wait to join Angela in Bangalore to get to work at EnAble India and for (hopefully!) lots of fun and great South Indian food. Until then, signing off! Wishing all my friends and family a very happy and healthy 2013!

~Priya

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Second Blog Post – January 7, 2013

EnAble, Employ, Empower

Originally posted on http://when-in-india.tumblr.com/ on January 3rd, 2013.

Today was our first day of work at EnAble India. Although we awoke bleary-eyed (still suffering from some jet lag, we were quickly reenergized by a breakfast of piping hot coffee and tea, toast, and uttapam (onion pancakes).

Uttapam for breakfast!

We caught a ride from Dipesh, our supervisor and co-founder of EnAble India (EI), to the EI training center where we joined the entire staff at one of their year-end staff meetings. The atmosphere was extraordinarily positive and lively with each staff member contributing equal amounts of input and jokes. We were also impressed by how organized the meeting was as well as by how passionate each person seemed to be about not leaving a single stone unturned in detailing goals for the coming year (compiled in a 7-page spreadsheet).

We then broke for a tea/coffee break during which we got to mingle with staff members and even coaxed some into a mini photo shoot (including the co-founders, Dipesh and Shanti!). After wrapping up the meeting, we were “inducted” into EnAble India by Kiran, the volunteer program coordinator. We then had a light South Indian lunch complete with sambar, rasam, and papad.

Photoshoot with Dipesh and Shanti, co-founders of EnAble India

In the afternoon, we braved the Bangalore traffic by foot to visit the main office, where we spent the rest of the day learning more about the EI employment training programs. Despite the hot Bangalore sun and the lingering effects of jet lag, we were inspired and invigorated by the brightness and exuberance of the entire staff at EnAble India. We are so excited for the next few weeks!

~Angela and Priya

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Third Blog Post – January 8, 2013

Looking Forward

I gave a very brief introduction to EnAble India’s mission and my personal motivation for joining hands with EI in my first entry, but I feel that it’s important for me to say a little more before diving headfirst into work this IAP.

My primary motivation for working in the field of disabilities is my sister, Rima, who is both the most loving elder sister anyone could ask for and an inspiration to all for her strength, ambition, and perseverance to achieve her dreams. She was born with cerebral palsy in Kolkata, India and came to the U.S. with my parents at the age of two for treatment, finally being able to walk at the age of six. Despite her motor challenges, she is extremely bright and will engage anyone for hours about anything from world history and politics to daily soaps on Indian channels. For the past three years, after graduating from college with a double major in Political Science and Communications, she has been working at a Biotech company in Seattle. Despite all her qualifications, being physically disabled poses many challenges in being able to work professionally, especially in getting to and from her workplace and moving about independently.

Seeing my sister struggle, I wanted to find out more about what I could do to help my sister and people like her. Particularly, through volunteer work with Samanvai (an organization led by MIT ’13 Srikanth Bolla, another extremely inspirational guy!) at MIT, I became interested in helping people with disabilities in India, where the challenges are greater, more diverse, and faced by a greater number of people. There are currently over 70 million people with disabilities in India – that’s greater than the population of Australia – and many face social stigma and a general feeling of hopelessness to reach their potential.

As Angela mentioned in her blog post, we both learned more about organizations in India through our Global Health and Development class. Over the course of several months, we finally got in touch with EnAble India, a truly amazing and inspirational organization that’s making huge strides in the lives of people with disability by giving them the skills and motivation to reach their full career potential and become economically independent. EnAble India is the brainchild of Shanti Raghavan, whose brother became blind while finishing his MBA, and her husband Dipesh Sutariya.

Angela and I will be working at the EnAble India office in Bangalore, India from January 7th to 29th, 2013 on the Workplace Solutions and Employability Teams. We will be designing a career “portal,” essentially an online platform for anyone with disability to search and find suitable jobs as well as discover the skills needed to fit the jobs and learn about “workplace solutions” (EnAble India’s term for assistive technologies and alternative methods for performing tasks) that will enable them to accommodate to the workplace environment. I will also present a few workshops on novel assistive technologies that I picked up from my assistive technology class in the Fall (6.S196 Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology – an awesome product design class that I recommend anyone take regardless of what major you are!).

I expect my IAP experience at EnAble India to be rich and enlightening. There will be so much to learn this month from my colleagues, not just about my specific project, but about interacting with people with disabilities (many of my colleagues are disabled, and I’ve already begun learning sign language!), understanding the organization and running of a small NGO, and about living and working in a completely new city and culture. The first few days have flown by and I already have so much to talk about! The bright, humorous, and extremely passionate staff, the far-reaching vision that is the air that the people at EI breathe, the food, the sounds, the warmth of Bangalore… Much more to come! Stay tuned!

~Priya

 

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Fourth Blog Post – January 10, 2013

What’s cooking in the kitchen?

Angela hard at work

Welcome to our office! This small, cozy, kitchen-turned-storage space has been our roost for the past three days. We perch with our laptops at the marble counter which probably served as the kitchen counter back when the EnAble India main office was still a house. In an adjacent cubby space are old computer monitors and keyboards. Up in a corner is an old fan, over which Angela and I have our daily tiffs about whether the fan should be on or off (Angela: “It’s so hot!” me: “The fan is making me sleepy.”) Angela ultimately wins – she controls the room temperature with the iron fist of Saddam Hussein (apparently that’s who she resembles according to a wonky leadership quiz) and I turn the other cheek (apparently, I resemble Mahatma Gandhi) and relent to her demands.

Our office is somewhat secluded from the rest of the office, but also welcome to the happy chatter of the other staff members in the building who stop and say hello every time they pass by the door. Every morning around 11am, we are greeted by a woman who serves tea but who we ashamedly turn down (politely!) on most occasions – we haven’t yet developed quite the capacity to drink so many cups of tea in a day as the rest of the folks here! Our volunteer program coordinator, Kiran, is a bubbly personality and doesn’t hesitate to come by and plop down on the stack of plastic chairs by the door for a chat about tourist attractions at any time.

Not all our meetings are spontaneous and impromptu. Yesterday, we met with our team leaders Vidya (Employment Team leader) and Santosh (Workplace Solution (WPS) Team leader) as well as two others from WPS, Moses and Muthu, to discuss our plan of action for the month. They are all such creative and visionary thinkers, and it didn’t take more than a minute before getting great ideas rolling onto the table. We planned to have a session of presentations on Friday evening, one on career profiling to be led by Angela and one on assistive technologies highlighting new commercially available AT as well as innovations by students at MIT led by me.

The rest of yesterday was spent by us busily preparing our presentations for the eagerly waiting staff at EnAble India. We have high expectations to meet, Shanti (one of the co-founders) told us jokingly as she stopped by our office to ask “what was cooking.” Shanti has a boisterous sense of humor and promised us a friendly bit of “ragging” (what we would call hazing) to welcome us newcomers into the EnAble India family during our presentations.

Today we spent the day looking at loads and loads of data compiled in Excel on job analyses and workplace solutions for the clients that EnAble India staff place in companies. Our job over the next few weeks is to organize all this data into a comprehensive career portal for people with disabilities to use as a resource for finding suitable jobs and accommodations. Angela and I spent a few hours today brainstorming and storyboarding for our web portal. All in all I’d say we’ve had a productive few days! Looking forward to presentations (and ragging by Shanti, haha) tomorrow!

~Priya

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Fifth Blog Post – January 19, 2013

Reflections on our work thus far…

So much has happened in the last two weeks, so this reflection will be a long one…

First Week Presentations

At the end of our first week, Angela and I both gave presentations to the Workplace Solutions and Employment teams as well as Dipesh sir and Shanti Ma’am (cofounders). Angela’s presentation was on her research findings on different career profiling methods as well as our initial prototype for the career portal. My presentation, which was supposed to be a 45-minute presentation on Dasher (an awesome alternative to using a standard keyboard, check it out here http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/) and on student AT projects at MIT, turned into an hour-and-half presentation/brainstorming session with everyone in the room pitching in with exciting ideas for using the technologies here at EI. Everyone was thrilled about Dasher because not only is it free, but it also has amazing features such as availability in several different Indian languages.

What really got people jumping out of their seats, however, was the presentation on student AT innovations at MIT, particularly the innovations from PPAT (6.S196). Muthu, the AT guy, was ecstatic at the prospect of applying the PPAT “Do-It-Yourself” ideas to projects for his clients here. Assistive technology does not come as one-size-fits-all which is why being able to build custom-made solutions at little cost is so fulfilling. I finished my presentation with a great sense of satisfaction because I realized that I had accomplished one of my main goals for my internship which was to share exciting knowledge of AT with EI as well as learn about AT from them. I will continue this knowledge exchange in future with the WPS team and will try to open up a long-term connection between MIT ATIC and EnAble India.

Digging into Work – Progress on the Career Portal

In the last two weeks Angela and I have made significant progress on our career portal project. To help us get started, we spent hours looking through documentation on EnAble India’s job analyses and “Workplace Solutions Tracker.” To understand how candidates are profiled and matched to careers on the ground, we volunteered at the monthly “Registration Day” at the office. The experience was enlightening on so many levels. The process had been fine-tuned to a science; candidates came in and waited in line to fill out the basic registration form with Roseline or Kiran, then went inside for a series of tests and assessments (English, basic arithmetic, “psychological readiness”), and finally had a one-on-one interview with an evaluator to assess what job would be best suited for him or her. I really enjoyed meeting the candidates, many of who were deaf and with who we had the opportunity to speak to using sign language (we’ve been getting lessons here!).

As someone looking at a career in medicine, I was suddenly startled to realize that the entire process closely resembled a journey through the doctor’s office – filling out basic medical history at reception, taking medical tests, and finally meeting with the doctor to discuss results and to evaluate the best course of care. Being able to experience the candidate registration process not only helped me to better understand what we had set out to replicate in a web-based platform, but also taught me lessons in how to listen to candidates, how to communicate with people who may not be able to communicate the same way as me, and how to see from the eyes of a candidate to understand their true needs.

After discussing the registration process and the web portal with our supervisors, I had another exciting realization which allowed the rest of our work to be smooth (relatively) sailing from then on out. I realized that Dipesh sir had not asked for us to build the career portal, but rather to design the portal framework from front to back. Essentially, he was calling on our skills as MIT students to be systems engineers. This realization led Angela and me to embark on brainstorming sessions in which we taped sheets of paper to the wall and drew boxes and arrows to layout the very detailed flow of information in the career portal. It was like mapping out a complex biological pathway or drawing a schematic of a chemical process (drawing from our experiences as Biology and Chemistry students). We realized that the true impact of our work is to expand upon a seedling vision and bring it into arm’s reach by adding fresh creativity to it and detailing all the tasks required for implementation, something that no one here with their busy schedules could have managed. We are in the process of compiling all our research and ideas for the portal’s implementation, as well as a starter skills assessments and WPS guide, into a document to leave with Vidya and Santosh, who will be able to use their ample expertise to fill in the portal content according to our directions.

Next week we plan to give a final presentation on the career portal to the entire team as well as discuss next steps.

~Priya

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Sixth (and Final!) Blog Post – February 1, 2013

Wrapping Up and Saying Goodbye

I can’t believe the month has come to a close so soon! Being at EnAble India for the last several weeks has truly been an unforgettable and invaluable experience. Every minute was a learning experience, complete with understanding the ins and outs of running an NGO, working with people with disabilities, understanding the career matching process, and being systems engineers to learning new languages (bits and pieces of Kannada, American Sign Language, and Braille), tasting new (and spicy!) foods, learning to navigate the crazy traffic, and haggling with vendors. I am bringing back home with me much more than I could ever fit in my two suitcases.

Our final Thursday at work, we gave our final presentation on the career portal and unveiled our hefty 30-page “handbook” outlining all the details and tasks required to fill in the content for the career portal. Our work was received with much appreciation from our supervisors who noted that we had surpassed their expectations and had successfully and creatively tackled challenges in the design. Vidya and Santosh will carry on the project by leading their teams to create the content for the portal based on our guidelines. We will stay in contact at least once a month to ensure that the project is progressing. It was gratifying to see how pleased they were with our work because we clearly have made the project much more manageable to execute.

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Besides our work on the portal, I also really enjoyed all the hands-on learning we were able to do. Everyday we had new lessons on sign language, and by the end of the trip I was greeting people in sign language every morning and having conversations in sign language with deaf colleagues. I also learned how to type using a Perkins Brailler and helped out in creating blind-friendly calendars one Saturday.

Beyond the office, we both had the opportunity to visit three amazing institutions. We spent a half-day at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) which is a huge complex of buildings serving as hospital for outpatient and long-term inpatient services, research institute, and educational institute for medical students. Their long-term patients even engage in daily vocational training activities such as candle-making, weaving, baking, printing, and sewing. We were amazed at the success of the programs and impressed to learn that the final products are sold in the gift shop as well as used within the hospital (all print material is printed by their patients and even neck braces and such are created in the sewing shop). The institute was a complete ecosystem.

On another occasion, we visited the Spastics Society of Karnataka (SSK) which is another sprawling complex serving as school for children with neuromuscular and developmental disabilities, diagnostic and research center, and therapy center. Angela and I had the awesome opportunity to observe a few consultations of families with the pediatric neurologist. This experience was of particular interest to me because I am interested in pediatric medicine especially for children with special needs. Just like NIMHANS, SSK also provided vocational/functional skill training such as crafts and baking to promote hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and focus. I really enjoyed interacting with several children folding paper bags. I won’t forget the bright, cheerful smiles that each and every child had as they greeted us.

Our final field trip was to the Sankara Eye Hospital where we went with Shantala, the children’s program coordinator at EnAble India. We visited a mobility training program for visually impaired children and had the opportunity to interact with the kids. Serving as a “sighted guide” for a small girl who was fully blind showed me how daunting it can be to travel without visual cues but also how liberating it is to learn to travel independently once you have unlocked your surroundings based on physical and tactile cues. Spending time at SSK and Sankara with the kids reminded me once more of why I love working with kids.

It was extremely hard saying bye to all my colleagues at EnAble India. I think what I will miss the most is the fiery can-do spirit that everyone here exudes. From Day 1 was struck by how cheerful everyone is and how everyone manages to make light of their hardships with the confidence that they can overcome any challenge. It’s an attitude that I don’t always see back home. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to taking things for granted and we lose perspective on the challenges that others face. I sincerely hope that I can carry forward with the same fire to beat challenges as the people here.

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Thank you, EnAble India for an inspirational and fulfilling IAP!

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