Creating Livelihoods for Hearing Impaired

November 21, 2017 12:15 PM
Sumit Singh Gandhi logo

Sumit Singh Gandhi, the brain behind Sounds of Silence (SOS) Foundation hit upon the idea of tapping mobile technology to improve the lives of the hearing impaired community. SOS has mentored, oriented and groomed over 50 Speech and Hearing Impaired youngsters in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune, for digital employment.

By Kavitha Srinivasa

As a management degree holder, one had expected Sumit Singh Gandhi, to be gainfully employed in a multinational. But he has chosen philanthropy over corporate life. Strange as it seems, but has Gandhi found his calling while pursuing a social internship programme during the MBA degree. He is credited for opening a window of communication for speech and hearing impaired (HI) students. The solution, it appears, is the mobile phone. A basic and ubiquitous SMS has proved to be a successful channel of communication. Besides generating great excitement and creating a sense of bonding among the HIs, it has also opened out new streams of avenues for them which were unthinkable. Gandhi has led SOS to great heights, and understandably, his efforts have won due recognition. Like the Social Entrepreneur Award of the Year in 2015 by Entrepreneur India. Apart from that, he’s also been honoured the mBillionth South Asia Award for Mobile Innovation in 2014. The award is initiated by New Delhi based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) to recognize and honour excellence in mobile communications across South Asia.

How did you begin your journey as a technology-based NGO? Please run me through the process?

I did my MBA from SP Jain Institute of Management in Punjab and social internship is part of the MBA Course. Students have to come up with a workable business model which has a give-back mechanism to society. That’s how I landed up in the All India Pingalwara Charitable Society, a home for the destitute in Amritsar, Punjab. They also tutor differently-abled children and that’s where my first encounter with speech and hearing impaired (HI) children happened in 2009. As a volunteer, I used to travel with these children from Jalandhar to Amritsar. During the 81 km commute, I had noticed that the children communicated through sign language which is their only means of communication. I have been curious to know what they communicated so I began to interact with the children through SMS, as I didn’t know sign language. What had began as a casual fun activity has become a compulsive daily routine.

By then word spread and the SMS communication extended to HI students in the classroom, wherein the teachers began to transmit basic information through 100-odd SMS’ a day. At the end of the two-month project, the student intelligent quotient (IQ) had increased from 60 to 90. The project comprised 10 students in the age of 8-14 years. 

This has led me on; I realized that mobile technology can be leveraged to improve classroom learnings of HI students.

By then, I had found my calling and knew that I could make a beginning with mobile phones. When I returned to Mumbai after my MBA degree, I spread the word and began to network with friends. I managed to collect around 500 basic feature phones in one-and-a-half months.

Why did you single out on mobile technology for executing the project? How did you focus on user experience?

I’m convinced that mobile technology can change the life of the HI community as it can be used to empower them. It allows them to express themselves in a manner which is much more effective and quicker than sign language. The platform ensures better communication and connectivity, thereby allowing them to express themselves better. Since mobile texting is common to everyone, psychologically it makes them feel normal like others. This thought process can be traced to the fact that we communicate with people through SMS, Skype and Blackberry Messenger, which was in use at that time. I just tweaked my approach and felt why not apply the same towards the HIs and it’s opened out a new world for them. 

I tied up with six such schools in Mumbai and distributed the phones free of cost for the education and overall development of underprivileged children including English communication skills. This went on till we registered Sounds of Silence (SOS) Foundation as an NGO in December 2013. During my interactions, I learnt that there’s no school syllabus for HI. We then developed a syllabus for HI. We created our own curriculum, which is integrated into the school programme, for instance, National Education Society (NES), Bhandup, Mumbai conducts exams based on our syllabus. The exposure helps students fine-tune their resumes. The SMS Texting and syllabus for HI is SOS’ first phase of development and we call it as SOS 1.0.

In how many places are you present in the country?

An organizational structure has been put in place.  We have ramped up our operations in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune, mapping our presence in over 20 schools. We’ve built a volunteer team of 50-150 members who have been trained in sign language interpreted in English. The volunteers will teach at the schools and the purpose is to empower the hearing-impaired for chat-based tech support.

We’ve tied up with eight small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for job placements, whereby HI professionals are hired for typing jobs. We have 50 such professionals working in startups located in places where we operate.

Please run me through the training process that the Hearing Impaired students undergo in domains like Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Email Marketing and Data Entry. What is the duration of training & does it involve job placements as well? 

We are one of India’s first companies to groom HIs to handle portfolios like Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Email Marketing and Data Entry. In SOS 2.0, which is our next level of operation, we have stepped in as service providers. We have explored unconventional and unknown vistas where HIs can work along with other employees after undergoing two-month training. A beginning has been made in BPOs (business process outsourcing) where HIs handle chat-based queries from clients. We thought it’s important to broaden the portfolio and in order to tap various streams of employment, SOS has whetted an opportunity with small and midsized standalone restaurants and cafes. I had noticed that the guest customarily fills in a feedback form after the meal. But this information is rarely digitized, and in the absence of documentation, it becomes a wasted effort and customer-related information is eventually lost. We felt we could fill in the gap with our skilled workforce of HIs. SOS has partnered with restaurants and cafes in Mumbai to digitize feedback forms. Let’s face it, most customer information relates to birthdays and anniversaries. Once HI professionals compile and upload the information on to the online database, the eateries reach out to the guest with discount offers or freebies to make the birthday or anniversary special. This has resulted in repeat customers, approximately 20%-25% customers become repeat guests over the next three months.

As part of SOS 2.0, we have hired 45-50 HIs who digitize information for restaurants and cafes, besides shouldering other responsibilities like customer relationship management (CRM), Chat, Social Media Marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). They earn a monthly income of Rs 5,000-Rs 8,000, the experienced ones can earn up to Rs 18,000. 

Please give details on Link Building Activities, On Page Optimization, Keyword Analysis, how does it work & what’s latest in these areas?

Under Link Building Activities, HIs are trained to derive good quality links which gives an insight into the number of links the site gets and its source.

On Page Optimization, helps in targeting important pages on the website. This can happen through good content backed by impactful images, and sitemap management.

Keyword analysis is essential to drive traffic to the website. All three tech services are under the SOS 2.0 programme, we have 14 HI working for the eight clients we’ve partnered with.

When you surveyed the Indian market, what were the findings? Are there problems peculiar to India?

India brings its share of challenges while handling this section of society. Countries such as US and UK have only one sign language whose medium of instruction is English. But in India, the sign language differs from state to state depending on the vernacular. Hence it’s not an easy task to standardize procedures when it comes to signing language processes. Secondly, companies are now slowly beginning to enrol the differently enabled people into their workforce. Basically, we want recruiters of both big and small companies to look at the HI segment just as they would look at other job seekers. However, it requires a complete change in mindset and orientation for their employees to become a mainstream option. Apart from this Indians face a huge challenge from overprotective family members which needs a special handling to ensure they prove to be morale boosters for their siblings or kids to grow and not roadblocks curbing them to their own cocoon.

Have you tied up with various state governments? Which are the markets that you plan to address & how many more lives do you intend to change?

As such we haven’t worked with the government and would like to do so when an opportunity arises. We are planning to expand into other cities. As a technology hub, Bangalore throws open several options, while Kolkata is a relatively unexplored market, and we are keen to enter both locations. Besides these locations, we also want to orient these professionals towards other verticals like retail, healthcare and education. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) a tech service is also on the cards.

What are your plans for this year? Are there more innovations lined up in your stables? Would you be able to provide a glimpse of behind the scenes developments?

We are on WhatsApp now and engage with our HI employees on Whatsapp for work updates, daily monitoring and learning for the HIs. 

This year, we are planning to launch a big project which is an Internet-enabled scheme that will address over 1,000 students in Mumbai. It will take into account their skill sets and job placements. We are in the process of scouting around for a partner to fulfil our vision.

Click here to read one of many experiences SOS has had while introducing technology to HI Individuals

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SOS in a Nutshell

The platform for HI ensures better communication and connectivity, thereby allowing HI Individuals to express themselves better. Since mobile texting is common to everyone, psychologically it makes them feel normal like others. This thought process can be traced to the fact that we communicate with people through SMS, Skype and Blackberry Messenger 

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