Person with Disability

A ray of hope for persons with disabilities: Vineet Saraiwala shares his story

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Vineet Saraiwala shares his challenges, aspirations and vision of a bright future for PwDs in India.
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For persons with disabilities, life is an arduous journey. First, they have their own inner demons to battle with such as low self-confidence, anxiety issues, anger and resentment. Then they have to face the outside world and fight stereotypes, lack of work opportunities, accessibility issues in public places, among other issues. Add a pandemic to this, and life for persons with disabilities becomes a nightmare.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the shores of India, many lost their jobs overnight. Things got even worse for persons with disabilities. According to a study by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, out of 70 million people with disabilities in India, only 0.1 million have regular jobs. This was before the pandemic. One can only imagine what happened thereafter.

Fortunately, Vineet Saraiwala was ready with a solution. Suffering from a rare genetic eye disorder, Vineet had the vision to help persons with disabilities find jobs, which suit their skills. That’s how Atypical Advantage was born, the world’s only talent platform for persons with disabilities.

While the pandemic is still raging on, Vineet has created employment opportunities for hundreds of persons with disabilities. Through his initiative, he is also running projects to make the lives of persons with disabilities convenient. In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Vineet shares his challenges, aspirations and vision of a bright future for persons with disabilities in India.

At 16, you were diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes loss of vision. Can you tell us about your experience?

Retinitis Pigmentosa is a degenerative eye disease in which vision deteriorates with time. I believe that it is at a perfect intersection between reality and illusion. Living with the realisation that your eyesight is deteriorating is not easy and accepting the reality is challenging. The eyesight in my case reduces so slowly that you won’t see any noticeable change in the short term and it plays with your mind giving assurances that everything is alright.

It’s double trouble for our family because my brother Anuj also has Retinitis Pigmentosa. We have tried all kinds of treatments—surgery, homeopathy, Ayurveda, allopathy, meditation, palmistry and a wide variety of strange herbs. But in the end, you need to accept the reality and live on with gratitude. I don’t want to defeat Retinitis Pigmentosa but embrace it as it comes and be prepared for the future.

Was there a turning point in your life that helped you move forward?

For me, a major turning point was meeting three teachers in Bengaluru who helped me and my brother crack the Common Admission Test (CAT). A month before I took CAT, I was not able to answer some questions. I started crying in the middle of a lecture, so one of the teachers split us up into two classes and devoted double the time to me. I was suffering from exam anxiety and she really boosted my confidence. Another teacher even taught us how to interact with the scribe and techniques to answer questions faster. My brother and I finally met our teachers after we cracked the exam. They did not charge us a single penny. We never knew such people existed. Meeting them was truly a blessing in disguise.

Can you tell us about your start-up initiative Atypical Advantage?

Atypical Advantage is the world’s first talent platform for persons with disabilities where you can hire talent, find jobs, buy products such as paintings and commissioned artwork. Our aim is to map the skills of people with disabilities across the country and match them with potential employers. We wish to empower persons with disabilities across the country by highlighting their abilities. You can hire photographers, voice-over artistes, physiotherapists, graphic designers, models, dancers, singers, painters, sign language interpreters and several others from a wide array of 550+ talent with disabilities across 20 categories. Our vision is to democratise jobs and freelancing opportunities in this work-from-home era where persons with disabilities have lagged behind. Atypical Advantage creates employment opportunities and opens up new avenues for the disabled sector at scale. It can be an instrument of change for the entire spectrum of persons with disabilities in the country and give them a chance to earn a livelihood with dignity.

How did the idea of creating India’s first talent platform for persons with disabilities come about?

There is currently no global platform to highlight the skills of persons with disabilities and there was a gap that needed to be addressed. When I was looking for models and voice-over artistes with disabilities to feature in a campaign promotion for a large retailer where I worked, I reached a dead-end. I reached out to various groups and found that there was a wealth of talent available but no platform to showcase them where they could be reached.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created further divides. People with hearing disabilities and vision impairments are already at a disadvantage with more work going online. People with physical disabilities are finding it challenging to go outside and are thus isolated. Opportunities to earn a livelihood have reduced drastically. Hence, I felt there was a need for an open platform where prospective employers could look at portfolios and contact the talent directly.

Tell us about the national-level disability inclusion project ‘Sabke Liye’ that you pioneered?

While working with a large retailer as their Inclusion Lead, I ran a program ‘Sabke Liye’, wherein we became the first retailer in the country with the most accessible stores with amenities for everyone including senior citizens, pregnant women, temporarily disabled, people with disabilities and others. In addition, ‘Quiet Hour’ was introduced, which is a sensory-friendly shopping experience with reduced light, sound, trolley movement and calm background for people on the Autism spectrum. We realised that a lot of people with disabilities are not venturing outside their comfort zones in public places. And ‘Sabke Liye’ stands for the notion that shopping is for everyone. This is the core thought of the program.

Persons with disabilities have mostly been excluded from the mainstream workforce in India. Do you think this trend is slowly changing?

I am an optimistic individual but I don’t think the trend is changing. We have less than 0.5 percent of the Indian workforce consisting of persons with disabilities. Unless there is a radical change in the mindsets of employers, the needle will not shift. They need to realise that hiring persons with disabilities is not a charity and it makes perfect business sense.

You have embraced your love for adventure by participating in numerous mountain treks and half marathons. What pushed you to challenge your limitations and take risks?

It was a sense of adventure and also a form of self-validation that you could run or cycle despite your disability. However, I have realised that true success does not lie in proving this to the world. I no longer wish to cycle or run to prove something to the world but for myself alone.

What message do you want to give the world?

Don’t treat anybody from the lens of ‘less human’ by showing pity or sympathy or ‘more human’ by imagining such people are endowed with the sixth sense. Treat everyone including persons with disabilities with the lens of equality and nothing else. Treat how you would treat any other fellow human being. If we can cultivate empathy, I am sure most of the problems in our society would be solved.

  • Vineet Saraiwala is the founder of Atypical Advantage, a talent platform for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs). He pursued his post-graduation from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B). He is also an avid trekker, marathoner, endurance cyclist and a lifelong volunteer.

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