(IAP ’13) Angela Ma, ’14

Angela and her project partner, Priynaka, spent IAP in Bangalore, India. They worked with the beautiful people of EnAble India, a charitable trust that equips persons with disabilities with the training and resources needed to obtain employment. They developed a comprehensive design plan for building a specialized career building web portal. Priyanka also led workshops on assistive technologies developed at MIT and elsewhere. Specifically, Angela worked with the instructors at EnAble India to quantify the career-matching process through a skills assessment survey. 


The Night Before…

Tonight I had my last Chinese meal (steamed hua juan/”flower rolls”) for a month! I’m hoping my strong Chinese stomach can withstand the fire of Indian food, hehe.

Also, my dog Toby seems sad to see me go (but he was more likely just sleepy in this pic).

A bit of background: My friend Priya (who is also traveling with me) and I took the same Global Health and Development class last semester (our project focused on autism in India), which inspired us both to do a service project in India. Priya has also been personally been affected by disability in her family (she elaborates more on her blog page).

Growing up in a conservative, solidly middle-class Midwest suburb did not allow me to view the world through the clearest lens. Within the “Carmel Bubble,” everything was fine and dandy; few lived in poverty and even fewer faced inequality. I’ve always taken it for granted that opportunities that I’ve been given. I’ve always expected to go to college and get a job, never realizing that these seemingly “simple” goals are impossibilities for some.

It never ceases to astonish me how opaque (and admittedly self-centered) my understanding of the world was until just last year. My awareness of global events came from the media, and though I read, in horror, articles about natural disasters, revolutions, senseless killings, and so on, I failed to realize the plight of those oppressed and discriminated against each and every day.

Long story short, largely because of that global health class, I came to realize the challenges that people with disabilities, particularly in developing countries, face each and every day. Priya and I, after months of trying, finally connected with EnAble India, a charitable trust based in Bangalore. EnAble India is an awesome organization that trains people with disabilities and helps them find jobs in companies and corporations, allowing these individuals to become financially independent! While I’m here, I’ll be developing a standardized skills assessment survey that can be utilized for candidates to pinpoint job sectors of interest and also identify areas of “weakness” in which they need more training.

Over the next month, I hope to complete a fairly polished draft of the skills assessment survey (a “beta” version that the candidates at EnAble India can use). This standardized tool could be used by anyone, not just people with direct access to EnAble India, to identify which jobs to which they are best suited.

I am so excited to be joining Priya in Bangalore, and I hope you will follow me on my adventure to India!


EnAble, Employ, Empower

We reunited in Bangalore last night when Priya burst into the room at midnight and woke Angela up from her peaceful slumber T__T. We awoke bleary-eyed for our first day of work but were quickly reenergized by a breakfast of piping hot coffee and tea, toast, and uttapam (onion pancakes).

We caught a ride from Dipesh, our supervisor and co-founder of EnAble India (EI), to the EI training center where we joined the entire staff at one of their year-end staff meetings. The atmosphere was extraordinarily positive and lively with each staff member contributing equal amounts of input and jokes. We were also impressed by how organized the meeting was as well as by how passionate each person seemed to be about not leaving a single stone unturned in detailing goals for the coming year (compiled in a 7-page spreadsheet).

We then broke for a tea/coffee break during which we got to mingle with staff members and even coaxed some into a mini photo shoot (including the co-founders, Dipesh and Shanti!). After wrapping up the meeting, we were “inducted” into EnAble India by Kiran, the volunteer program coordinator. We then had a light South Indian lunch complete with sambar, rasam, and papad. 

In the afternoon, we braved the Bangalore traffic by foot to visit the main office, where we spent the rest of the day learning more about the EI employment training programs. Despite the hot Bangalore sun and the lingering effects of jet lag, we were inspired and invigorated by the brightness and exuberance of the entire staff at EnAble India. We are so excited for the next few weeks!

~Angela and Priya


An Afternoon with CCNA…

Yesterday, Priya and I were able to to meet candidates enrolled in the CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) course for the visually impaired. Most of the candidates had low vision, but some were completely blind. Many had lost their vision in later life and were thus adjusting to their new lifestyles.

The entire bunch, around 20 people, was extraordinarily light-hearted and cheerful. They had come from all walks of life and even from many different states in India. Together 6 days a week, from 9 AM- 6 PM, for months, there was a sense of family and camaraderie, complete with gentle ribbing and sometimes raucous jokes. In fact, each candidate had selected an animal that best fit their personalities and characteristics (a “totem animal,” of sorts) and insisted that Priya and I do the same (Priya was a beaver, Nature’s Engineer, whereas I was a panda bear, a bamboo-munching Asian).

Priya and I expected to simply observe the candidates in the midst of training, but the instructors had other ideas. Instead, what transpired was essentially a mutual Q&A session, with the candidates asking us about life at MIT and in the States and us asking the candidates about their personal stories and journeys.

Many of the candidates seemed positive and upbeat about their situations. One candidate, Ashish, even jokingly told us about how he first realized he was losing his vision during a cricket match.

(link to video: http://when-in-india.tumblr.com/post/40160631597/ashish-on-losing-his-vision)

Others have found it a bit more difficult to adjust. Kiran, a former microbiologist, is losing his vision from macular degeneration and was subsequently forced to give up his career as a researcher. He is still a biologist at heart, however, and his “totem animal” was the common cold. When asked why, he humorously replied that there is no cure and that he is always suffering from it. Kiran later hesitantly yet hopefully asked us if we knew of any scientists at MIT who were blind (we didn’t).

Himanshu (L) and Kiran (R)

The candidates we met were extraordinarily inspiring in that they had taken the initiative to adapt to and make the best of their situations. They are also intensely interested in reaching out to rural and lower-income individuals who are also vision impaired but might not have the same opportunities as the candidates at EnAble India do. They had great ideas and had all clearly all thought about this issue extensively and identified awareness and finance as the two main obstacles to rural outreach.

We ended the day with a little lesson in Chinese (everyone was pretty tickled that the phrase meaning “joke” can also mean “digest” if not spoken with the correct inflection, haha) and hopped onto an auto rickshaw (in which we both saw our lives flash before our eyes) to journey back to our guest house.

Until next time!

Registration Day (and lotsa lotsa sign language)!

Today was Registration Day! The main office was like a bustling beehive, bursting with energy and activity. Mubarak, one of the staff at EI, was probably the busiest bee — “Mubu, bring me the registration book!” and so on. We had about 15 new candidates with various disabilities come to register with EnAble India to gain access to its wealth of resources, trainings, and job matching processes. Outside in the cool shade, Mubarak showed us how to greet the candidates as they came in and take their names and basic education info down.


After registering the candidates, we followed Santosh (aka “Mr. Bond,” his affectionate moniker, who was sporting a very pun-ny shirt — see below) and a candidate, incidentally also named Priyanka, into our “office” for a career profiling interview. Santosh asked her a series of questions about her background, family, personal motivations, and education/training. We were struck by how patient and flexible Santosh was in speaking with Priyanka who is hard of hearing and had difficulty reading his lips. We were also impressed by the confidence with which Priyanka proudly described her computer programming experiences (way beyond anything we are capable of doing).

After the hustle and bustle of the morning, we had a quick lunch and then participated in an impromptu crash course in sign language (basically, a few deaf trainers swept through the room like a tornado and taught us a toonnn of signs!). They also came up with signs for our names—Priya’s was signing a “P” across her eyes and bangs to highlight her glasses and hair, and Angela’s was signing an “A” and making squinty eyes (clearly, friendly “racist” humor is international). Some of our favorite signs were “fire,” “dragon,” “turtle,” “dance party,” and an odd sign language exchange between Priya and Santosh (Santosh: “I want to fight with you.” Priya: “No. I do not want to fight with you.”).

We ended the day with Dipesh sir giving us a bit of light reading (only 300 pages or so) for the weekend, which by the way is a holiday weekend (a whopping 2 whole days!).

Tonight, we are finally watching a Hindi movie (Angela’s first one…let’s hope it’s good!).

Until next time!

~Angela and Priya


Mid-IAP Reflections

It’s been a very busy few weeks! The EnAble India founders are very interested in creating a career-building website that is accessible to and tailored for persons with disabilities all across India, so Priya and I came up with a career portal “mockup”—what we envisioned the website to look like. Last week, Priya and I did our first presentation to the Workplace Solutions and Employment teams. Priya presented the current assistive technologies at MIT (as well as her PPAT final project), while I presented current methods of career profiling (regarding the skills assessment) and a career portal mockup/storyboard. The presentation turned out to be a giant brainstorming session, lasting almost 3 hours! The entire staff was very enthusiastic and visibly excited about finally getting the website off the ground and had a ton of fantastic ideas for us.

For the rest of our time here, Priya and I will be preparing a handbook of how to build the portal, in terms of content as well as linkages (almost like systems engineers!). I am also working on a sample skills assessment, and Priya is working on a workplace solutions guide template. After the entire portal is created, using our handbook/manual as a foundation, it will be accessible to PWDs all across India (maybe even the world!) and will enable and empower them to achieve their true potential and become employed and financially independent. PWDs will be able to use the career portal to assess their own abilities and interests in order to identify careers in which they would flourish; they will also be able to discover workplace solutions that will enable them to work their dream jobs. Additionally, they will have the opportunity to discover ways to enrich their skills through trainings and career development resources.

I’ve learned so much in my time here. All the staff members are so invested in the lives of the candidates they advise and help. The goal of EnAble India is to not tell individuals with disabilities what their limitations are but rather to tell them what they can do and how they can use their own personal strengths to obtain employment. Here, the sky’s the limit. Each candidate is bursting with confidence and purpose and creativity. We had a conversation with Mr. Sutariya, one of EI’s founders, the other day, and he mentioned that people close to PWDs often don’t expect anything of them simply due to the nature of the disability, which prevents these individuals from achieving their full potential. His personal philosophy is that once you expect something from PWDs, you empower them by forcing them to think creatively and come up with solutions to overcome their supposed limitations. Subsequently, the atmosphere at EnAble India is extraordinarily positive; people think in terms of what they can do and what they aspire to instead of dwelling on what they can’t. Ability, not disability. Enable, employ, empower.



Field Trips and Pigging Out

EnAble India has been really good about arranging “field trips” for me and Priya to visit other disability-related organizations in the area. So far, we’ve been to NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience), SSK (Spastics Society of Karnataka), and Sankara Eye Hospital.

NIMHANS is located on a sprawling campus of hospitals and residential areas for long-term patients. We had the opportunity to see some of their vocational training programs, including basket-weaving, candle-making, baking, weaving, sewing, and printing; the patients even make braces/cervical collars for the whole hospital! We were astonished by how self-sustaining NIMHANS is…it’s almost like its own ecosystem.



A young PhD student showed us around and took us, along with her doctor friend, to the NIMHANS coffee shop (during which we witnessed a lot of eye flirting between the two lovebirds, hehe). Priya and I attempted to recreate the scene in the back of the auto, to a disastrous effect.

Our next stop was SSK, a school for children with neuromuscular and developmental disabilities (i.e. cerebral palsy, autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation). SSK offers a comprehensive package to its students, from diagnosis to treatment, therapy, education, and vocational training, and mostly serves students from the lower economic classes. We even had the opportunity to observe a physician evaluate a few patients and visited with some students who were making bags out of newspapers! Many of the students are super artistically talented, and SSK sells their paintings and crafts in their gift shop and at exhibitions. The vocational center has a bakery as well, and Priya and I devoured some delicious freshly-made curry veggie puffs before heading out.

For lunch that day, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant called Phobidden Fruit (hehehe, Priya says Indians like their puns). We feasted on fresh summer rolls, chicken momos (dumplings), pho, and stir-fried noodles. Unfortunately, we were so full we didn’t have enough room to go to Corner House (a fantastic ice cream place) again :(.



In fact, (we jokingly say that) Priya ate so much, she broke the seat of the auto rickshaw  that we rode back to the guest house. I hopped out and stood on the street for a few seconds wondering what was taking Priya so long, and when I looked back, I saw a red-faced Priya stuck in the seat of the auto; apparently when she tried to get off, she took the seat cushion with her, too! Even the auto driver was struggling (but ultimately failed) not to laugh; I can only wonder if Priya has been blacklisted by the auto drivers of Bangalore as a high-risk passenger.

On Saturday, we helped make tactile calendars (with 3D pictures for each month) for EnAble India’s blind candidates. We even learned to use a Brailler (a typewriter that types Braille)! That afternoon, we visited the Sankara Eye Hospital and sat in on a weekend mobility training class for blind children and even got to act as sighted guides! The little kids were incredibly adorable and cheerful, and we had an awesome time interacting with them.


^They made a congo line behind their sighted guide! It was the cutest thing ever.

Yup, it was a pretty packed few days, but we still got a lot of work done for EnAble India! Priya and I are almost done writing the manual for the development of EnAble India’s disability-friendly career-building website. We’ll be doing our final presentation to the EnAble India staff on Thursday morning. It’s hard to believe our time here is almost over; it’s been an incredible few weeks, and we’ll really miss all our co-workers.

‘Til next time!


Looking Back

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Us in our MIT swag

At the end of our internship, Priya and I completed a 26-page handbook that listed the components of (and implementation steps to synthesize) the career-building website, including a career profiling section, job roles database, workplace solutions/assistive technologies catalog, trainings catalog, and plans for future work. I personally put together a sample skills assessment survey that I adapted from various online skills assessments (e.g. ISEEK, and the US Dept of Labor’s Skills Profiler; I also reconstructed EnAble India’s roles database (essentially a giant spreadsheet of case studies) in a more readable and organized sheet that especially emphasized the accessibility (what types of people can do the job) of each job title. Priya made a workplace solutions catalog template, which especially featured the necessity of creating a set, standardized list of skills that can be listed under each job description. By utilizing the engineering frame of mind MIT has given us and with the help of the EnAble India staff, we have designed and created the foundation for a career portal that is comprehensive, easy to use, and most importantly, tailored for and accessible to persons with disabilities.

This past month has been a month of firsts for me. My first time flying internationally alone (not as scary as I thought!). My first time in India. My first time eating street food. My first time sari-shopping! But most importantly, I met a group of people that I will never, ever forget. The staff at EnAble India is truly extraordinary. Although they come from all walks of life, they all share one vision and one goal: to empower PWDs to recognize their own value and worth, seek employment, and ultimately gain financial and personal independence. Each staff member gives 110% to each candidate; Vidya, the Employment team’s program manager, answers countless calls from candidates each day (some even at 3 AM!). The staff knows each candidate by name and is constantly searching for workplace solutions/ATs and job openings. Each meeting sparks with energy and enthusiasm. Not only is everyone super dedicated, but also they are positive and upbeat! The staff is like one big family, complete with gentle ribbing and playful roughhousing.

On our last day, Priya and I went to visit Shanti, who just had back surgery and had not been to the office in a few days. Unsurprisingly, she was active and restless and already working (she joked that the surgery was just a lie to get time off from the office). She is such an inspiring character and left us with a solid piece of advice: do not be afraid to take risks and stand up to a challenging situation. She noted that staying positive and energetic in a negative environment is a more significant and more rewarding experience than staying positive in a good, happy environment. Apparently, one of the staff members had wanted to try out the corporate sector for a while but hated the environment as compared to EI and wanted to come back immediately. Shanti made him stick his assignment out, and apparently, he came back with a renewed appreciation for EnAble India and a renewed vigor for his job. Much in line with Shanti’s advice, PWDs must overcome more obstacles than we can even imagine and subsequently become stronger.

I have learned so much in such a short period of time, and I can only hope to take some of the positivity and sheer altruism that pervades each interaction at EnAble India back to MIT with me. I think we can all learn from the people who work at EnAble India. We should appreciate the skills and capabilities we possess and not dwell on what we cannot do. MIT has equipped up with the knowledge and training to conquer the most challenging of problems and build the most complex of structures, but I believe that we should be better about using this knowledge to do some sustainable good in the world. Places like EnAble India need engineers and computer scientists to harness technological knowledge and channel it into things such as assistive technologies that can give PWDs capabilities beyond their wildest dreams. Most students at MIT covet “high-profile” jobs at places like Google and Microsoft, but there seem to be fewer students interested in more modest yet more altruistic (and perhaps more rewarding) positions. My internship at EnAble India has altered my perspective of the world such that I now see a world of possibilities rather than a world of potential obstacles. I truly believe that if we set our mind to do something, we can accomplish anything; the most difficult part is pinpointing exactly what needs to be changed in the world. We’ve been given the tools for change; we need just select the right things to carve.


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