For the differently abled by a differently abled – an inspiration from Tamil Nadu, India

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During my recent mission visit to Sivagangai District in Tamil Nadu, India, I met with Mr. Kannan, a social entrepreneur. I was visiting communities to understand the latest efforts under the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project (TNEPRP) to support the differently abled with economic activities following their identification and mobilization. For six months now, Mr. Kannan is running a Community Skills School (CSS), an innovative approach to skills enhancement, in the Kalaikulam Village. At the school, which provides self-identified and motivated trainees with skills to repair home appliances, Mr. Kannan has already trained 70 differently abled men and three women. Among the trainees is his wife, who is differently abled herself, but is of huge support to Mr. Kannan in running the CSS and in working with women.

He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women.
Mr. Kannan, a differently abled social entrepreneur
Mr. Kannan, a differently abled social
entrepreneur. (Photo: Varalakshmi Vemuru)
Run on a guild program model, the CSS ensures that upon completion of a one-month program on skills enhancement, the trainees can become self-employed or work in small enterprises repairing home appliances in their own and neighboring villages. The rapid urbanization of rural Tamil Nadu offers plenty of such opportunities.

Mr. Kannan designed the key aspect of the curriculum—which goes beyond technical training—based on his own life experiences. During our conversation, I found out that Mr. Kannan is differently abled himself—he was afflicted with polio at the age of three and has lost the use of both his lower limbs. As a result, Mr. Kannan needed a wheelchair to get around. Nevertheless, he was not deterred and continued his education to receive a diploma in mechanical engineering from a local Polytechnic. He ended up at Samsung’s service center in Chennai, the state capital, where he spent four years acquiring skills in home appliance repair. 

After returning to his native village, Mr. Kannan opened two highly successful service centers repairing home appliances. He employed two differently abled friends, teaching them how to do repair work. This kindled in him the drive to support many others, and thus began the partnership with TNEPRP. While designing the curriculum, he put together modules on personality development, motivation, life skills, and customer relations management—things he learnt were complementary to technical training and crucial for the differently abled given their marginalization. Other key support mechanisms include on-call help from himself and a WhatsApp group where the trainees can seek help with difficult repairs and share experiences with each other. In addition, he provides a kit of tools for each trainee, to help them start off immediately upon completion of the program. All this to ensure that trainees start businesses successfully, sustain them, and expand their customer base.

After the first two groups of day-trainees, Mr. Kannan requested for project support to include a residential facility, since the differently abled faced great mobility challenges traveling long distances every day, especially by public transport. In addition, Mr. Kannan is now starting to set up an assembly center of electrical and electronic equipment, in partnership with leading private firms, to provide employment opportunities to many local differently abled youth trained by him.
Mr. Muthu, a beneficiary and successful entrepreneur who suffers from low vision
Mr. Muthu, a beneficiary and successful entrepreneur
who suffers from low vision. (Photo: Varalakshmi Vemuru)

The TNEPRP design specifically focuses on the differently abled as part of its inclusive approach and “participatory identification of the poor”. First, it aims to identify and support medical treatment for the differently abled, followed by their social and economic empowerment. In the past decade, TNEPRP has reached over 175,000 differently abled, with both physical and mental disabilities, making it one of the largest World Bank-supported operations on social inclusion of the differently abled. As the implementation of TNEPRP comes to a close in June 2017, the World Bank is supporting the Government of Tamil Nadu to prepare the Tamil Nadu Rural Transformation Project (TNRTP), which will build on the strong social mobilization and institutional architecture of TNEPRP. The TNRTP will focus on propelling the rural economy in Tamil Nadu by smoothing entry barriers for individuals and community livelihood groups to access skills, technology, finance, and technical assistance to promote self-employment, individual and group enterprises, and skilled workforce particularly among women, the youth, and differently abled.


Varalakshmi Vemuru

Practice Manager, Social Sustainability and Inclusion Global Practice, Europe and Central Asia

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