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This Woman Helped 4,500 Disabled People Land Jobs

When Shanti Raghavan's little brother was diagnosed with a degenerative vision disease, she spent years helping him navigate the world on his own and teaching him that he could do anything with his life despite his disability.

But her brother, Hari Raghavan, still had trouble finding a job despite earning a bachelor's degree in commerce and an MBA in marketing from one of India's best universities.

It took Hari more than 70 job interviews before he landed a position with a financial company -- and that's when Shanti Raghavan realized she could apply everything she'd learned from her brother's situation to help other disabled people live normal lives and get work.

Disabilities are often considered a "curse" in India, according to a Christian Science Monitor profile of Shanti detailing her efforts, which to this day have helped more than 4,500 people with disabilities get jobs.

There are more than 21 million people with some form of disability in Shanti's native India, a figure that works out to more than 2 percent of the population, according to the country's census figures.

The U.S., where Shanti works as an IT administrator, has enshrined the rights of people with disabilities through laws, and legally requires infrastructure -- like wheelchair-accessible ramps and braille signage -- to ensure the disabled can navigate society and the physical world.

But India has no such infrastructure, according to a 2013 CNN report, making it difficult for people who are blind, deaf or have physical impairments to get around on their own and live self-sufficient lives.

Then there's the cultural aspect; in India, disabilities are often viewed as the result of karma, and many believe that people suffering from impairments did something to deserve them -- an attitude that makes it even more difficult for them to live normal lives.

As a result, attitudes have been slow to change, according to Devender Pal Singh, who lost his right leg during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999.

"Everyone expects all buildings and landmarks to be 'disabled-friendly,' but it's not possible overnight," Singh told CNN. "You must adjust yourself."

After encountering difficulties and running into negative cultural attitudes while helping her brother, Shanti said she realized more needed to be done.

“On this journey of enabling him, we felt that we needed to do something with the knowledge we had," she told the Monitor. "We were not thinking of anything big at that time, but we felt we could assist those who needed help."

In 1999, Shanti and her husband Dipesh Sutariya founded EnAble India, which trains people with disabilities and works closely with potential employers to place clients in good jobs. To date, Shanti and Dipesh have helped more than 4,500 clients land jobs with some 600 companies in India.

“Shanti Raghavan is an exceptional individual,” said Javed Abidi, a disability rights activist in India and chairman of Disabled People’s International. “Motivated by her brother’s struggles, she got associated with the disability sector and today, she is an enabler and a leader in the disability space in her own right."

After starting off small by training a handful of visually-impaired people to use computers, Shanti quit her job in 2004 to turn her non-profit into a full-time enterprise.

“I thought, I will take a year off, build a small team, stabilize everything, and go back to work,” she told the Monitor.

But that didn't happen. As more people learned of EnAble India and the services it offered, more of them came to Shanti and her husband for help.

In 2007 the non-profit scored its first corporate sponsor, the Axis Bank Foundation, and it expanded to offer services to people with other disabilities in addition to the services it offered to the blind.

“One after the other, things happened so fast that ultimately I forgot that I said I had taken a year off!” Shanti told the newspaper with a laugh.

In addition to training people on how to become self-sufficient, helping them improve things like mobility, helping the blind to use the internet with screen-readers and even teaching them English-language skills, one of EnAble's core efforts involves matching job candidates with companies and positions that are a good fit.

That often involves helping employers make the transition easier for their new employees, and making sure their new hires have the tools and set-up they need to become regular, productive workers.

“An employer would lack the know-how of how to employ, work with, and train a person with disability, which becomes a barrier or mind-set in the employability process,” Priti Lobo, a program manager at EnAble India, told the Monitor. “We try to break those barriers by equipping the employer and the person with disability to work in a conducive environment.”

As EnAble grows, Shanti and the nonprofit receives more recognition. In addition to getting profiled in the Monitor's "People Who Make A Difference" series, the philanthropist has received awards recognizing her and her organization for helping to improve the lives of thousands. Those awards include the Hellen Keller award from the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, a prestigious fellowship for social entrepreneurs, and a Times Now Amazing Indian Award.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Census of India, CNN / Photo credit: Rotary Club of Nagpur/Flickr

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