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iridium Interactive: An eye for humane practices

This article on iridium Interactive was featured in the NASSCOM EMERGE news letter, july ’08 under the section HR Factor .You can read the full aticle here

When many companies prefer to pursue corporate social responsibility as an activity extraneous to organisational functions, Hyderabad –based iridium Interactive has embraced it as a human resource policy and is hiring the visually challenged without batting an eyelid. emergefinal.jpg

Chances are that a casual or even a business visitor to iridium Interactive‘s offices will spend a good half hour in the Internet consultancy firm without seeing the truth. About 5% of the employees are visually challenged. They go about their work like any other professional, sitting at their desktops, making presentations, interacting with US-based clients and even heading projects. Even the headphones that help them with the screen-reader software do not stand out as they are so ubiquitous in an office with a young crowd.

When Sriram Bharatam, the CEO & Founder of iridium Interactive went ahead and hired these professionals, they were absorbed into the workforce seamlessly after just one orientation programme and within half-a-working-day. It was the “inclusion” workshops held for the other employees blessed with vision, which took up many many hours and workdays.

Sriram is a social entrepreneur who first made waves after the Orissa Cyclone in 1999. Leveraging the power of the Internet, he floated a website, CauseanEffect to raise $ 1.5 million in 45 days to help the victims. While he went on to win the Kauffman Community award for Social Entrepreneurship for this effort, he had already launched several other social re-engineering projects in the areas of sustainable livelihood, rescue and rehabilitation, animal care, health and nutrition and childcare and education.

Spotting the right kind of talent

Meanwhile, a chance encounter with a blind engineer hired as a telephone operator urged Sriram to give this wasted pool of talent a fresh lease of life. “I did some research and found that most blind professionals, no matter how qualified they were, had been hired only for odd jobs”. EnableIndia, a leading NGO working in the disability sector supported Iridium in identifying disabled talent and inducting them. The people hired proved themselves to be no less or perhaps even better in terms of enthusiasm, adherence to deadline and quality of work. Soon, iridium Interactive made it part of its human resource policy to be an equal opportunities and equal pay employer.

iridium Interactive employs the visually challenged and is an ‘equal opportunity and equal pay’ employer, headed by social entrepreneur Sriram Bharatam

Today, in addition to the visually challenged persons, a professional with cerebral palsy works at Iridium. They are all mostly graduates. What do they do? “They are engaged in programming, database and server management functions,” reveals Sriram. Is the office specially equipped to help them perform their duties? Do they need additional training and work-aids?

Sriram scoffs at the question. “Have you ever felt the ‘F’ and ‘J’ letters on your computer keyboard? There is a slight protrusion. None of us even notice it. But it is with the help of these two keys alone that the visually challenged manage to negotiate with typewriters, computers, phones (check the number 5)—they are already designed with such interventions.” he says. Desktop software like MS office, “shortcuts” and keyboard combinations are designed to enable use by the visually challenged. “You would be amazed to see the speed with which they manage the keyboard just using shortcuts,” he adds.

Working for web accessibility

iridium Interactive has also forayed into making and testing websites, intranets and software products accessible for the blind. Web accessibility for the blind has become a mantra of sorts for Sriram. A random survey of all the Internet sites of Indian origin revealed that most were inaccessible to the blind. In contrast, in most countries abroad accessibility to physical structures and cyber spaces including Internet sites are mandated by law. Ironically, 1% of India’s population (around 12 million people) suffer from some form of blindness and this number is estimated to go up to 24.1 million by 2020

Sriram has been lobbying with policy makers to make the necessary changes in the Disabilities law, the Right to Information law and other related statutes to make web accessibility a must. “Imagine the future scenario which would be further dominated by the Internet—the physically and visually challenged will be marginalised,” he points out. According to him India Inc is neither aware nor interested in taking steps to undo this. “We have approached several entities. It is not just the corporate, even government sites and social organisations are lagging behind,” he points out.

Most websites of Indian origin are not accessible to the blind. iridium redesigns them to make them so. But there are few takers.

At present though, iridium Interactiveis in the last leg of making accessible. “The redesigning is not just for the blind, but for the colour blind, those with eye defects and weak sight,” he clarifies. According to him, most sites can be re-designed to make them accessible to all at just a fraction of the initial cost. If the accessibility is planned at the launch of a site, a separate section can also be designed. But there are not many takers.

Undeterred by the lack of enthusiasm, Sriram is striving on. For a Media Labs Asia and Rehabilitation Council of India initiative, iridium Interactive has designed and developed a website for the challenged, This site hosts all rules and regulations –both domestic and international—on disabilities. It showcases all products and helping aids for the disabled. It has also put up a disability registry to help the physically challenged register for a certificate or for other facilities.

Software pros aid disability certification

Iridium was specifically assigned this task because it has already worked in the area of disability certifications. Going out to rural areas in Andhra Pradesh, software engineers from iridium conduct ‘disability melas’ over weekends and have awarded 6000 certificates of disability last year. “A disability certificate is very important for the challenged. It helps them access several benefits throughout life. But it takes nearly two years for a disabled person to get this document. So iridium has stepped in and works with the authorities to help speed up the process,’ Sriram says. The disability mela has also become an IT-fraternity and family- and -friends mela of sorts as everyone ropes in everyone they know and it is growing in popularity.

Software engineers from iridium Interactive tour rural areas in Andhra Pradesh during weekends to distribute disability certificates to the visually and physically challenged. 6000 certificates have been distributed in association with the authorities last year, speeding up the process which normally takes two years.

Working on solutions to help the deaf access multimedia content (which is captioned in detail), the blind to understand graphics (screen-readers that convey graphics and images too), and handicapped to work without a mouse, iridium has a fast growing business in this space too.

Among the various projects is an Intranet with a potential 10,000 users across a business school campus in the US which is to be made accessible to the handicapped.
Another revolves around making telecom products similarly accessible as well as software solutions for use in a call centre where the visually challenged are to be employed. For all of these assignments, iridium Interactive actively employs the services of the handicapped. “We have signed MoUs with organisations that care for the disabled and we hire them from there to help us in these assignments,” says Sriram. He plans to set up an Accessibility Lab in Hyderabad to facilitate further research and development in this area.

In the beginning there was some discomfort within the organisation and some “unchallenged” employees left, feeling challenged in the new atmosphere. But now it has become an accepted practice and people hardly discuss the issue. In fact, there have been instances where employees are inspired by the visually challenged in their midst and have worked harder. Isn’t this a grand vision that has made an HR practice turn into a corporate social responsibility activity, fuelling enterprise growth as well… …to Cause an Effect?



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