Postcard from India: Breaking Through Barriers For People With Disabilities

Jun 14, 2017   |   Shelley Stern Grach

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. With over 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, we’re passionate about ensuring that our products and services are designed for people of all abilities. We are committed to transparency, accountability, and inclusion in our products and our culture, and we are deeply inspired by the opportunity to work with others around the world to explore what’s possible. Read more about Microsoft’s commitment here. This discussion will focus on the remarkable Ruma Roka, and how her vision and leadership created the Noida deaf Society and its enduring impact on the Youth and adult with hearing disabilities in India.

There are about 60 million deaf people in India. They often face significant poverty, lack of medical facilities and lack basic communications skills. At times, the deaf in India are not viewed as trainable workers, when, in reality, they simply have a different mode of communicating with the rest of the world. All they need is a means to communicate and a supportive environment.

Ruma’s journey from homemaker to a champion of the deaf is incredible. In a country with limited resources for the underserved, Ruma has been an advocate and a pathfinder for improving rights and livelihood for the deaf. Facing big challenges like social stigma, lack of education (curriculum and facilities) and lack of government programs, she also faced her own biggest fear: the fear of failure. Ruma began her journey in 2004, and like many nonprofit founders, she was living comfortably but not satisfied with her personal direction and impact on her community. While watching TV, she saw a program on sign language and was fascinated by the use of hands as a means of communication. This is especially interesting as she had no deaf family members, and her leadership approach demonstrates her clear vision and passion for making a difference. She made the commitment and completed her sign-language course in 2004. This knowledge connected her to the deaf community and she realized the challenges facing the deaf in India: family communications options, education and the lack of workforce opportunities. As Ruma said, “My work is not a job, it’s a responsibility”.

She identified some of the key challenges for the deaf in India:

  • The need for social skills development in addition to basic communications skills
  • The need for job skills, including the ability to translate signing into more traditional communications like writing
  • The need to have free curriculum and a workforce strategy that ultimately will include job opportunities in banks, technology and retail

To address some of these issues, Ruma started the Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in 2005. She started out in her own home with just five students. She created visual training materials and ultimately created curriculum which includes computer training for her students. She worked with local content developers and created English Reading and Writing Communication/Indian Sign Language. Perhaps most importantly, as Ruma recruited and trained her students, the students became the teachers of the next generation of students. She found that the best teachers for the deaf are the deaf themselves. They bring the passion, the drive and the ownership and don’t view their role as a job, but a mission. This was a first — professional training for the deaf that was taught by teachers who were themselves hearing impaired. Through word of mouth, NDS now reaches 1,000 students every year and has expanded to 5 centers in Noida, Delhi, Jammu and Jaipur. Ruma has been decorated with many national awards and has delivered a TED Talk:

When you enter the Noida school, the first thing you notice, of course, are the children! The two story building is divided into several classes, which are simply separated by curtains–since all the classes are taught through sign language, it’s very quiet (except for the occasional laughter), so multiple classes for various age groups and skill sets can co-exist in a relatively small space. I was also struck by how young most of the teachers are—having recently been students themselves, they seem to relate very with their younger charges. NDS also focuses on teaching students about technology. There is a small computer center, where students learn computer skills and take courses for certification.

Future expansion of NDS includes, working with more schools from across India and expanding the current curriculum and teacher leadership geographically, and possibly a primary school for early childhood learning. Another area is focusing more on the social skills for students and increasing the students’ confidence. Ruma sees teachers as the “leaders of our children” and has created an environment to positively impact thousands of young people, providing them skills, self-assurance and an improved chance at economic success. Under Ruma’s leadership, Noida School for the Deaf has truly become a lighthouse for the deaf, and provides an inspiring story of hope, economic empowerment and leadership.

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Shelley Stern Grach
Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.