When my son’s diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum pushed me on this journey, my eyes opened up to the magnitude of the challenge that we faced as a society. Every time I tried to solve one problem, something else popped up. It was like playing the game of Whack-A-Mole. The system was broken on multiple fronts – to name some, healthcare, schools, mindset of individuals, our society’s response to an individual with challenges, lack of funds, our lack of will to make a change. I had no clue where to start. However, I must admit, I considered myself very lucky to have resources and a network to get things done for my son. But for the vast majority of people with special needs children, it was a struggle, even a question of survival. The deeper I got pulled in, the more I felt the need to do something that would make a difference to the dismal situation. After numerous months of trying to understand the problem, I realised that the root cause of all the issues was a lack of awareness.
Not only did we have to come out of the closet, as far as accepting the fact that individuals with challenges were part of the same society, we also needed to celebrate our uniqueness and our differences. Spreading awareness seemed like the lowest common denominator to this problem. Awareness made people sensitive, and drove them to action. Many people attributed the problems to lack of action. On the contrary, I found that people were fundamentally generous and wanted to do something, but did not know where to start. In many cases, unlocking a small door gave hope, and connecting like-minded people had a massive ripple effect. I clearly saw the need to get like-minded people, people of influence and people with resources come under a single roof. A medium where people could share inspiring stories and learn from one another. Having visited numerous conferences and events across the world, I clearly saw the need to get the entire PWD (Persons with Disabilities) community together in a unique world-class event.
And that was the birth of the India Inclusion Summit (IIS). In the five-year journey of IIS, we have made incredible progress. From being an annual event, it is becoming a year-long movement. Initially a few individuals spearheaded it, now an entire community owns it. Unfortunately, there is still an uneven distribution of the impact, largely confined to cities, and this needs to change. While we still have a long way to go, a good start is half the job done. Here are insights from my inclusion journey:
Changing the context is the key
One of the biggest learnings from the inclusion journey is to change the context. People with disabilities are always living in an environment where they are a minority. This fundamentally impacts their thinking and level of confidence. The same is true for the so-called normal people. I have found that if we swap the context, the impact is amplified at all levels. IIS is a platform where we try to do that. We ensure that people with disabilities are the majority, speakers and participants alike.
One of the most moving moments was when a girl who could hardly walk, managed to make it to the stage to give a hug to actor Ramesh Aravind. While this could have been a fan moment, it also showed that she did not feel embarrassed or was conscious of her disability, since she was in the company of people like her. People with no special needs too become more sensitive when they realise that they are surrounded by people with different needs.
Passion with compassion
History has shown that true change can be brought about by a few people. Large-scale changes or movements are always started by a few people (whether it is religious, social or political) and then amplified by people who sign up for the same purpose. The most important quality is passion and compassion. Add competency to that and it amplifies the impact.
Money is not an issue
Running IIS every year and making it free for all its participants means that there are funds required to execute the event. Interestingly, we have never had a fundraising team. Since there was no profit motive and no personal agenda, every time there was a need for money, we managed to get it – mostly because of goodwill.
On the few occasions when we fell short, we had an unexpected windfall from hitherto unexplored avenues. Once when we were short of funds, one of the corporates just sent us a cheque, no questions asked! On another occasion, one of the volunteers reminded us of some long-forgotten money that we had collected.
Joy, happiness and giving
If you have to measure true success, count the blessings you get. My friend, Nipun Mehta, founder of ServiceSpace calls it the “real currency”. I have seen the strongest person break down in tears; a person who could never sit in one place, spend a full eight hours in absolute joy; people finding their purpose and meaning during the event and committing to making a difference in their own small way. It is almost impossible to measure its true impact as you cannot measure the ripple effect in any matrix. In the sum total of all indicators, joy, happiness and giving are the only virtues that count.
Word of mouth
It is amazing how far word-of-mouth takes you when the intentions are pure. We have never marketed the event, except on social media by volunteers and still end up with a full house year after year. For many, IIS is the annual pilgrimage they make!
The power of good intentions
If there is one takeaway from my journey with Inclusion, it is the power of good intentions. There were numerous occasions when good intentions have almost miraculously solved problems. The challenges are huge on all fronts, especially financial and organisational. While no event is perfect and we constantly work to improve and scale the impact, at each of those challenging times some unexpected doors opened when everything else seemed closed. Even constraints like a speaker dropping out at the last minute, hotel rooms not being booked and technical glitches have miraculously sorted themselves out. While it is never perfect, it is almost as good as it gets, because everyone owns the event.
And lastly, it always helps to remember that the ripple never started with one and it should not stop with one. To start a movement, you have to have the ability to let go and remind yourself that the individual is small and the context is large. To quote David Brooks, “Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause”.