INCLUSION BEYOND ABILITIES TRUST (iBAT): Transforming the lives of the differently abled through inclusion in the recreational and wellness space
Here’s the story of Lakshmi Ravishankar, Founder and Trustee of Inclusion Beyond Abilities Trust (iBAT) as shared with Smitha Hemmigae – Making recreational and wellness activities inclusive by partnering with other organizations in this space.
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
This is my 20th year in the social sector. I used to work as an HR professional for a company based in Hyderabad. In July 2000, my father suddenly passed away and I had to go to Chennai to be with my mother.
In that week, we got a call from the school for the visually impaired in Chennai. They were shocked to hear about my father. A couple of hours later, they called back again and said that they wanted to conduct a memorial service for my father and invited us to join them. So, my mother, my sister, and I attended the function. It was a real eye-opener for me.
I knew my father had been working with visually impaired students, but the appreciation I heard from the students moved me and I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was told that my father recorded learning sessions and gave the tips and explanations, which helped the students in preparing for their examinations.
“When we came back home after the memorial function, I sent my resignation. I realized that someone had to carry on what my father had started. It is my father’s blessings and guidance, which makes me believe that there is much more to life than earning money.”
So after a couple of months, I went back to Hyderabad and I started my journey volunteering with an organization for the intellectually challenged. I was with them for a couple of years and I learned to be sensitive not only to the beneficiaries, but also to their parents, as they have an important role to play. Since I have worked as a PR professional in the past, I am good at marketing. So in those 2 years, I contacted all the schools and colleges in Hyderabad and sold the notebooks and files made by this NGO.
In 2002, we moved to Bangalore, and my journey in working with the visually impaired started. I was working with an NGO till 2009. I mentored and counseled them, learned sign language, ran a marathon with them, took them to write their exams and attend interviews.
In 2009, we left India and moved overseas. I didn’t want to break the relationships I had built within this sector for 7 years. I started taking online assignments and classes for the under-privileged students on Skype. I did a lot of documentation, research, and analysis for about 4-5 years. Towards the end of 2014, we returned to India and I continued working with NGOs here.
In 2015-16, I joined the National Association for the Blind (NAB – Karnataka). I was freelancing, volunteering, and doing project consultation. I did a lot of work with NGOs across India.
In 2018, the founder of an NGO from Chennai approached me. He wanted some assistance in connecting with the Government to help him with his work in Bangalore, that’s when I joined him and started interacting with the government of Karnataka. I had a lot of interaction with the Director and Commissioner of the department working for people with disabilities.
Once one of the Directors told me that since I have a good network and understanding of the social sector, I should start my own NGO and the government will help me as much as possible.
“I did my homework and found that there are a lot of NGOs in urban areas that offer different types of training to the needy to empower them financially. But PWD (Persons with Disabilities) in rural areas, are the ones who lack opportunities. That’s when I decided that l will work in the rural sector.”
Many NGOs provide vocational training for the differently-abled, but do nothing to help them find employment. I connected with a 35-year-old NGO in Mumbai that does a lot in terms of vocational training and I decided that my NGO will not only provide training, but will also help people with disabilities earn a livelihood.
I launched my NGO- Inclusion Beyond Abilities Trust (iBAT) last year in December 2019. The first unit was to be set up in Chikkaballapura on 1st April 2020. We identified around 30+ PWDs, but because of Covid-19, we have had to revisit all our plans.
Please tell us more about your success on this journey
I co-founded iBAT along with my husband Ravishankar, a senior agri-business professional,and another senior HR professional, Imitiaz Baig. We are focusing on two verticals right now – the first involves providing vocational training and setting up production units, and the second is focused on nurturing Inclusion.
“We all know about Inclusion at the workspace and in educational institutions. But I believe inclusion should also be nurtured in the wellness and recreational space.”
I got in touch with a few organizations in the wellness space and two popular names, “Art of Living” and “Heartfulness” have agreed to come on board and partner with us. Another NGO Seva in Action, located in Koramangala is our venue partner. We have all agreed to not charge anything for conducting wellness activities for persons with disabilities. Our workshops have been very well received by those who attend them, as well as their parents.
After the Janta Curfew was announced and the first lockdown was about to start, many individuals approached me for support. Many of them were visually-impaired, daily wage earners living in different parts of Karnataka. Also, many students staying in hostels were facing a lot of difficulties owing to lack of funds and provisions, and so they approached iBAT for help. We roped in some organizations to help them.
In May 2020, a Delhi based NGO, which already has a toll-free number started getting calls from across India, requesting their help. The founder of this NGO approached me and I pitched in by handling all the calls from Maharashtra.
Around 15 to 20 visually impaired people called from across 4-5 districts of Maharashtra asking for support. Many of them were hawkers who make a living by selling small items on trains. We managed to help them with essentials and medical help for a couple of months. Soon my phone number was circulated among the visually impaired people across Maharashtra, and within 2 weeks I started getting around 2000-3000 calls.
Since the number of calls was huge, it was not possible to help them through local NGOs. So I started connecting with the office of the Commissioner for individuals with disabilities and this work is still going on. Around 600 of them have already got support and around 2000-3000 workers are still waiting, and I am very hopeful that these people will also get the support they need.
The Commissioner’s office also acknowledged my work and thanked me for bringing this to their attention. I am happy that I can help them from being in Bangalore.
Besides this, I have also worked as a volunteer for another NGO. It was set up for the upliftment of the abandoned street children. I have mentored many kids there. Most of them are economically independent now and doing really well professionally.
“There are 2 incidents that really moved me on this my journey.”
The first was on a winter evening in 2006/07. I came back from work around evening time and was working on a report, which I had to send to a visually impaired person I was working with. After I finished my work and called to inform him. I also asked him if he had reached home. He said that he was still working in the office. I instantly said that it was getting late, cold, and dark and that he should go home and work.
He asked me “what is darkness?” He pointed out that it is always the same for him and so day and night don’t bother him. That’s when I realized that I needed to be extra careful while talking to the visually impaired. I apologized to him and he was understanding.
Another time, a visually impaired girl came to learn computers from rural Karnataka. She was abandoned by her parents and I was very close to her. She used to share all her fears and I would try to instill confidence in her.
One day, she said that her schoolmate was getting married and she also wanted to get married. The only worry she had was “who will marry me?” – I told her that she will find someone at the right time.
One early morning in 2008, I got a call from this girl. She said that she is getting married to the computer teacher and also invited me to her marriage. I went to her marriage and told her that she was looking so beautiful in a bright red color. She said that everyone is saying the same thing and asked, “What does beauty mean?” – It really shook me. She wanted me to explain how beautiful she looked. I then tried to explain to her that happiness is reflecting from her face and she is looking bright, and it brought a big smile on her face.
These are two incidents deeply seated in my memory, which I will never forget.
What are your future plans?
The vocational training and the production unit of my NGO-iBAT are currently on hold because of the current pandemic. But we are still trying to do some activities.
A group of 30 visually impaired state government employees of Karnataka approached us, as they had heard of the wellness activities conducted by us. They are from the forest department, revenue department, and many other departments of the Karnataka government. They all are employed as per the government policies, but they also want to climb up the professional ladder. They want to be motivated with an expectation that their work will be recognized by the superiors and even they can get promotions.
“We have started conducting the motivational and self-development workshops for these 30 government employees.”
We have conducted quite a few sessions so far. The sessions are held every second and fourth Saturday of the month. We are getting a lot of positive feedback from the attendees and they are really looking forward to future sessions
There are a lot of requirements for software testing and accessibility of apps and computer programs. So, we are partnering with a senior visually impaired expert in software testing and accessibility, who was working for an MNC. We are hopeful that very soon we will start online accessibility testing classes for the visually impaired. This is in our pipeline. The vocational training and production unit might start in September. We are thinking of starting with a small group.
How can someone work with you or join you?
As planned, the first batch of persons with disabilities will first get vocational training with the corporates, then we will start producing and marketing the products. We will be connecting with the CSR heads to showcase our products and if they fund the project as their CSR initiative, it will be really helpful.
We are planning to set up our production unit by Diwali. We will be focusing on marketing and selling corporate gifts. We are hopeful that the corporates will help us in this initiative.
We will need volunteer support to market our products. We want them to come to the facility and understand how the PWDs are making the products. We need volunteers to go to different schools, colleges, or even shopping malls, and set up a stall for 3 days to sell the products.
Those interested in volunteering with us can get in touch through one of the founders of Your Philanthropy Story.
Story transcribed by: Nimisha Jaiswal
Edited by: Vasudha Veeranna