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Episode Flyer for #96: Disability Inclusion and Accessibility in India
Episode Flyer for #96: Disability Inclusion and Accessibility in India

Guest: Nipun Malhotra          Date: February 21, 2018

Guest Title: CEO and Founder          Guest Company: Nipun Foundation              


[Intro music]


Debra Ruh:       Hello everyone, this is Debra Ruh, and you’re listening to or watching Human Potential at Work. Today our guest is joining us at a very, very late time in Delhi, India. So it’s past midnight, and we sure do appreciate Nipun staying up to talk to us because he’s a really, really fascinating story, and there’s a lot efforts being made in India, and he is one of the leaders that I’ve been tracking for a few years, and he graciously agreed to stay up so that he could come on the program.

                        So, Nipun, welcome to the program.

Nipun:              Thank you. Excited to be on.

Debra Ruh:       So, Nipun, tell us, I don’t want to butcher your last name, so tell us your name and tell us more about who you are and the association that you run in India.

Nipun:              I’m Nipun Malhotra. I was born with Arthrogryposis, which basically means that the muscle in my arms and legs they’re not fully developed when I was born, and they’ll stay that way for my life. I run this foundation in India called the Nipman Foundation that works on three areas, or the three challenges, that a few people disabilities face, and I call them the three A’s. That are attitude, accessibility, and affordability. So, yeah, in brief, that’s what I do. It’s called Nipman Foundation.

Debra Ruh:       In brief, and yet, Nipun foundation and his work is very impressive. I have been tracking his work for a long time, and we’ve gone back and forth, and we were trying to figure out how we made this work considering we’re in such different timezones, but many of my listeners will know this, but there’s over a billion people in India. And India is a very big, big country, and there’s so much work to do. So, Nipun, tell us, what’s it like to be in India and be a person with disability. I know some of this, but tell our views and listeners more about what is it like to be in India and be a person with a disability.

Nipun:              So I think of the challenges for a person with a disability in that extremely high end, it’s interesting that you mentioned that there are more than a billion people in India, and the WHO agency says 15% of any country’s population in the world is disabled, but according to India, the official census that calculates the population, which happens every ten years, in 2011 they only calculated 2.21% of India’s population to be disabled, and one of the main reasons for that was because of a huge social stigma that associated with disability in India. T?here are many people, especially in rural India, who feel that perhaps they have a family member with disabled [inaudible 00:02:50]. So, those kind of archaic thoughts especially rural India they exist, and apart from that access already is another way to challenge where not just rural India, but even the booming Indian cities like Delhi are extremely inaccessible, and even the more infrastructure, the more, et cetera, are the proven things.

                        In certain open pockets of this country, access already does continue to be a big challenge, and interestingly I remember I was in Chicago last year, and I was speaking at a conference, and this young 22-year-old girl who actually came up to me and said, “Oh, in India there are actually places that are inaccessible?” And I thought the question kind of amusing was that India look at things opposite, where you’re trying to find accessible places that are then point out places that are inaccessible. So, yeah, the challenge of watching this to allow the extent compared to what a lot of your U.S. user might not see.

Debra Ruh:       Yes, our Americans with Disabilities Act, right now, we’re having some political issues with that, and we’re hoping that it will remain strong, but it’ll be 28 years old this summer, and a lot of progress has been made. There’s still inaccessible sites, but I think it’s interesting what you said, instead of looking around India for and talking about how inaccessible it is, you look for the accessibility. So you reward the positive.

                        I also think it’s interesting, I’ve been blessed to work all over the world, and I’ve worked in many countries where you have the obvious problems and opportunities to include people with disabilities as any other country, but sometimes the beliefs of the people, the cultural, the spiritual, the religious beliefs, especially the people that believe that in karma and you were born a certain way because of something you did in another life, and you have a lot of other nuances that you’re having to deal in India beyond just the obvious barriers that we know are there.

                        And I also see a lot of innovation happening in India. Not just with inclusion of people with disabilities, but inclusion of the entire population because you’re such a large population, and pockets all over India. So, I think a lot of the world is looking at India and trying to, the countries with the biggest populations, to see what is going to happen. What’s gonna happen in India. Where are you going to grow to as a people, and how are you going to make sure that everyone is included, and is it on enough people’s agendas? There’s a lot of variables and nuances. Which is why, once again, I’ve been tracking the work that you’ve done. I know that you’ve done a lot of writing, a lot of speaking. I was glad to hear that you were in Chicago, in the U.S., last year. We’ve done a lot in the U.S., but we still have so much to do, and we actually, in the U.S., are learning from what other countries are doing, as well.

                        Also, thought it was interesting point, Nipun, that you brought up about the census. We know, according to the World Health Organization, that most populations, as you said earlier, is about 15 to 20%. In the U.S., more people self-identify as having a disability on our census, and it’s because we’re really embracing it. In some ways. In some ways we’re not, but I think there’s a lot of reasons why the countries that are doing the census are having such a mixed number. So we assume, even in the United States, and in other countries, the numbers are even larger than what is being reported, but it’s very interesting. The efforts that leaders like you are doing. So, Nipun, tell us more about what your association does to make sure the people with disabilities are included.

Nipun:              So one of our projects is what we call Wheels for Life that connects people who need wheelchairs to anyone who can donate a wheelchair in terms of money, and a wheelchair in India costs around 5,000 Rupees which is probably around $75.

Debra Ruh:       Okay.

Nipun:              Yeah, and that amount is basically equivalent to a simple meal or a pair of jeans, and I recently tried to preach for people that, “You know, you can really change a life by donating that money rather than spending it on yourself,” and we’ve actually managed impacting close to 800 lives and last one year through that particular project, and a small reason, it might sound something really basic to you, but it’s money allowing people who go back to school, people to take up a job, all this who have some kind of independence and dignity at home.

                        Apart from that we also been doing a lot of advocacy work. For example, a couple of months back, India introduced this new tax, called the Goods and Services Tax, which is a centralized tax across all states in the country, which are based on state-wise taxes, and even though it made life a lot people very easy. Unfortunately what happened is that, I don’t know that it was a bureaucratic oversight or whether the, what the government was thinking, but actually ended up deciding to tax disability aids under that income tax, which are already tax-free, and it is really include hearing aids, keyboards, wheelchairs, et cetera. Which already increased the cost of living for a person that has disabilities. So, we did a lot of advocacy work including rioting, appearing television, and those things that were to be taxed at 18%. We managed to bring them down to 5%, but are actually now fighting this in the Supreme Court of India, which is India’s highest judicial court to actually make that 0%. Well, I think these kind of things should not be taxed.

                        Apart from that we’ve also been fighting a lot of other cases including, I’ve actually been fighting in the Delhi government for them to monitor access order be in the city of Delhi. I’ve also challenged the government position to buy buses. This year itself, that Delhi government decided buy the people buses, and these buses were not the low-floor buses that are accessible to people with disabilities, but standard low buses that are not accessible, and the picture I always make is that accessible infrastructure in the city is not only going to have people with disabilities, but the elderly population, too, and India’s a huge elderly population. We talk about India’s young demographic dividend, but around 7 to 8% of India’s population is elderly in that sense, and so I think it’s important to battle for accessibility for the larger community, and those are some of the advocacy work things that we are doing.

                        Apart from that, another interesting project that we do, and that was actually inspired from my trip to Chicago, that I saw this app for Yelp that actually had wheelchair access for those for restaurants. I came back to India and actually worked with Zomato, which is India’s biggest restaurant that really [inaudible 00:09:49] so. I don’t know, we do a lot of work, but these are some of the basic things that I thought I should highlight, and I think if you ask me more questions that highlight more work.

Debra Ruh:       Absolutely, and it really is very interesting because there, once again, we are all learning from each other, but I think the knowing how we can help I think is important, and so if you’re a person that wants to give back to, and make sure that people with disabilities have the best life that they can in India, rather than trying to figure it out, one way that you can help is by sponsoring or donating money to your association to make sure that people with disabilities are being included, and that they’re getting wheelchairs and that, like you said, taxes on assisted technology and hearing aids, and already the people with disabilities in India are living way, way, way below poverty level. Just like, unfortunately, in many other countries, including the United States, and so I think there’s a lot that we can do to help, and there’s a lot, but often people don’t know what to do to help, and so I think it’s really important that the work that you’re doing, where you’re really advocating for your fellow people with disabilities in India, but also you’re talking to the legislators, the policy people, helping them understand the value.

                        Also, another thing I was thinking, because the U.S. and other countries, just like India, we have a very large elderly population, and it’s only growing, but a lot of people in the world want to travel to India. To India is a very big tourist destination, Delhi being one of them, and so the more you make Delhi accessible to your individuals with disabilities, to your older people, the more accessible it is for the tourists, and you want the tourism dollars, and so I think a lot of times when I’m talking to countries and stuff, I keep reminding them, this is a tourism opportunity here. Make your buses accessible, make your airports accessible, make your restaurants accessible. More people will come. So this is certainly about the people of India, but it’s also about those of us that want to come to India, too. So, if you haven’t used that spin, I highly recommend it because it gets a lot of people’s attention.

                        And another thing to pawn that we see a lot of people talking about are the smart cities, and we see a lot of conversations in India about the smart cities, and the robotics, and the Internet of Things, and how all of those things can improve society, but at the same time, there are major benefits when these things are made accessible to people with disabilities. Have you gotten into any of those conversations?

Nipun:              We’ve been trying to get into them, but unfortunately what’s happened is that there’s this Accessible India Campaign that is going in the country at the moment, and it has a lot of excitement and hype, but because of brandless a launch date and a lot of noise around it, but unfortunately what happened is that the Accessible India Campaign and the Smart City Campaign in India are two separate campaigns, and they’re not being looked at together either. Where the Accessible India Campaign’s looked after by a particular ministry which is the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment that has very low budgets, low ambitions, and the Smart City Campaign is looked after by a very separate set of bureaucrats and ministers, who have very different goals, et cetera. So, I think accessibilities aren’t really become a mainstream topic in India such, but it’s looked at as a site topic that one particular ministry needs to look after rather than something which every government position really needs to consider, and I think that’s where really a policy change really needs to happen because I think accessibility is something that that is affected by every decision that a particular government makes. Something that we do is we do an award every year with Microsoft, and Microsoft has been our partner since last year. Again to look at companies that employee people with disabilities in a way to technologies that are coming in introducing space, et cetera.

                        And even a lot of private companies that are doing that kind of stuff, I think if the government really needs contribute to accessibility, especially with how technologies transforming the reducing space, I think it’s important that scientific technology ministries, IT ministries, et cetera, all [inaudible 00:14:25] on disability. And I think that’s not really a problem in India specifically, but in most developing countries, where there’s a particular ministry that has a corner office that is supposed to look after disability and all the ministry really talks about it, and that’s why a lot grand schemes like smart city schemes, et cetera end up forgetting disability, and if you’re going to forget such a large population of the country it won’t really how smart you want to be.

Debra Ruh:       Right, it’s interesting because the more you include people, right from the beginning, the more, once again, is accessible to everybody. That’s one thing I love about accessibility is you make things accessible for one segment of the population, it winds up making things more accessible for everyone, and so, I also see this happening all over the world. It is inclusion of people with disabilities is a charity. It’s got as charity, and social good, and yes, all of these things are true, but the reality is this is good for the country. It is good for the country that if you’re spending all this money on smart cities, and you’re trying to be smart, as you’re saying, that you’re including everyone because that is really the right thing to do, and then you were the innovator that all the other countries come look at and say, “Wow, look what’s happening.”

                        And I’ll give you an example of a country that’s being very innovative with this: Japan, because Japan has the oldest per capita growing population in the world, and they are being so innovative with what they’re doing to include people with disabilities, senior citizens, and everyone is benefiting from it. The robotics, and the smart cities, and all the different things, and so, I think often you’re absolutely right. I was just in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and they’re having a lot of these conversations, and it was, we had the same discussions, you cannot just assume that disabilities goes over here in the corner, and that one ministry has everything. No, it goes all the way through it. I’m just like, multi-generations impact every single ministry. So, it should be part of every thing that India’s doing, and I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but it really should be. If India wants to be, and it’s certainly India’s seen in a lot of ways as a progressive company, country, but I think the opportunity to be even more innovative and progressive is there, and that’s why it’s so important for voices like yours to be heard, and for people like me to turn up the volume and make people know, help people know that you’re there.

                        I also would wanted to give out a shout to Microsoft because Microsoft I see all the time when I’m in other countries helping other countries. Microsoft is at the table trying to make the difference, and very proud of Microsoft. They’re not a perfect company, but they sure are trying, and I applaud that, and I also will say, that any of the corporate brands that are watching this program, this is an opportunity for you to get involved. If you have employees India, get involved. Get involved with the association, and seeing how you can help. There’s a lot that the corporate brands can do to join these conversations in real meaningful ways, and what we always want to do is make sure the people, like Nipun, are the ones that are controlling these conversations because you know your people. You know your fellow country people, and so it’s so important that you’re working with people that are already making these efforts on the ground in Delhi and other parts of India, as well. So, right now, how long has your association been around?

Nipun:              We started in 2012, so it’s been around six years, now.

Debra Ruh:       Alright. Alright. And how big is it?

Nipun:              So the, especially our Wheels for Life program that connects people to wheelchairs, we exist in eight states. So. Yeah. Eight states in the country.

Debra Ruh:       Excellent. And I love that you’re working on all these accessibility things. So, have you gotten involved-

Nipun:              [crosstalk 00:18:25] the country, so it’s more than eight state today. For example, the last month the government came up with policies for [inaudible 00:18:34]. How, and who can vote for the [head 00:18:38] and who can not vote for the head, and I was actually shocked to hear that people with disabilities in India were brought from work for the head despite the fact that the host country that actually special providence for people with disabilities, and we actually wrote about it, spoke to the ministry and actually succeeded in changing the length of the line. People with disabilities to vote for the head, so that actually effects the entire country and not just Delhi, so, yeah.

Debra Ruh:       Right. Right, and once again, it affects the whole country and the whole world because in the United States, we have 340,000,000 people, which is a lot of people. India’s got a billion. So, we, as a world, will learn so much about India and the diversity of the people in India and people with disabilities, people that are aging. So, I think we need to continue to turn up the volume on work on associations like yours is doing upon. Have you all been engaged at all with the United Nations, or I know I’m very engaged, probably engaged, with the International Labor Organization’s Global Business Disability Network, and there are some disability associations that are involved with that at the national level, and we do have presence in India, but I’m just curious. Is this something that you all gotten involved in, any of the UN’s work? Or if you want to get involved I will also pull you into some of the conversations I’m having there.

Nipun:              We were working a lot for the Indian of Nations, the Confederation of Indian Industry, which is India [inaudible 00:20:10] for private sector companies in India they’re official accessibility partner, but the United Nations I know are not so far. Maybe I’m speaking to the right person who can-

Debra Ruh:       Okay

Nipun:              Let me to them know.

Debra Ruh:       Yes, I will definitely connect you to them. Especially because something this important in your mission is employment. So, and that’s very important to the International Labor Organization, being labor there, so, and the Global Business Disability Corporation, I mean Network, which is focused on corporations-

Nipun:              I-

Debra Ruh:       Multinational corporations wanting to make a difference.

Nipun:              I am glad you mentioned-

Debra Ruh:       Go ahead, Nipun.

Nipun:              Because it was my only experience and then broaden that actually inspired me to start my first foundation. If you can give two minutes, I’ll just tell you why I started the first foundation and-

Debra Ruh:       Please, please.

Nipun:              Yeah, it was in 2011 that I was doing my Master’s in economics that I decided to sit for placements and take up a job, and it was then that I actually saw the kind of discrimination people with disabilities face first time because even though the Master’s student of this one company, that sit in interview actually asked me that, “We want to see whether you can sit on your wheelchairs for nine hours of the day. We want to test you, making you sit on your wheelchair for nine hours a day.” There was another that made me go through seven rounds of interviews before finally telling me that, “We don’t have a disability-friendly toilet, we want to reject you.” And I actually told him that I could control my bladder, and that should not be an issue, but they said, “No, we are scared that you might sue us or more so just safer not to hire person with a disability,” and I was, of course extremely disappointed and depressed and such kind of thing happened. Such incidents happen almost a dozen companies, and my dad had his own business and I at that stage joined his business, and then eventually started my own foundation, but what I realized is that I had another option to go back in life, but a lot of other people didn’t get at all that option, so. It was quite shocking and it was quite humiliating when I went through those incidents where I turned interviewers where it was not my identity as a Nipun Malhotra that was seen, but they identity of 22, 23-year-old wheelchair user that was seen, and that was a lot in India, but hopefully we can change things. Yeah.

Debra Ruh:       And I will tell you, unfortunately, that happens all over the world, including the United States. We would never be allowed, legally, to say that we can’t hire you because we don’t have an accessible toilet. So, if you can’t hold it, we can’t hire you, but that would certainly get you in trouble, but, unfortunately, we know that there is discrimination happening all over the world. So, and it’s really a shame when somebody sees just your wheelchair and not everything that took you to get there. Your Master’s Degree, how hard you had to work, but …

                        And, also, obviously you have the heart of an entrepreneur like your father before you. So, we see a lot of people with disabilities out of necessity becoming entrepreneurs, and very innovative and smart entrepreneurs, and they change the world that way, so I think there’s so much that impresses me about you and that’s just a few of the things, but.

                        So tell the audience how to find out more about your work. Your website, or are you on, I know you’re on social media, that’s how we connected, and I’m on your mailing list. I don’t even know how I got on your mailing list, but I love the information that you send. It’s always very powerful-

Nipun:              Thank you.

Debra Ruh:       Very targeted. I get a lot of stuff, but you caught my attention. You caught my attention, and I was very impressed with your work.

Nipun:              Thank you so much. So, if anybody is watching, they can log onto, for the wheelchair program that I mentioned, the website is Our foundation website is, N-I-P-M-A-N-F-O-U-N-D-A-T-I-O-N dot com, and on a lighter note, it’s called “Nipman” not where I think I’m like Superman that’s [inaudible 00:24:03]. My younger brother’s name is [Maniksy 00:24:06]. It’s Nipun [Manik 00:24:07], that’s my nickname. I’ve been accused in the past, that you think you’re Superman? That you named it “Nipman,” but no. And if you do want to follow my one work and my things, I think that anybody can follow me on Twitter, @nipunmalhotra, and my other ID is [email protected], so, yeah.

Debra Ruh:       Are you all on Facebook?

Nipun:              Yeah. I’m on Facebook, too. Yeah.

Debra Ruh:       Alright. Good. Good. Good.

Nipun:              [crosstalk 00:24:32].

Debra Ruh:       So, what we’ll do-

Nipun:              My whole name is Nipun Manultra, so just look up my name on page, yeah.

Debra Ruh:       Okay. Good. We will make sure that we put all the links to how to get ahold of him, and the association, on my website when we post the interview, and we’ll also put it in the Facebook, too, for everyone that wants to learn more, to support what they’re doing, donate money, they’re looking for corporate sponsors, they want more employment. So, let’s really get behind people like Nipun who’s trying to make a difference in   world because this is how you really change lives. So, Nipun, I want to give you a … Is there anything else you want to say to the audience before we end the interview, I can’t talk.

Nipun:              I’ll end off by talking about something that really happened to me when I was in school. I remember there’s this interviewer who came to school and saw me in a wheelchair and she asked me this question, but actually aren’t really sensitized to [inaudible 00:25:31] disability, but I know the real kid, a small kid, and she asked me, “So, Nipun, you’re in a wheelchair, how do you feel being on a wheelchair?” And I answered something that, now is seen as very deep, and I don’t know how I had so much wisdom at that age, I don’t have it now I guess, but I told her that everyone has a problem, the only difference is that mine is visible, and I think that’s what I’d like to tell everybody in the world, that you know that everyone really has a problem, and embrace your problem and work on it and dream and achieve big. Yeah.

Debra Ruh:       I agree, and sometimes these problems that we have, those are our greatest strengths, and that is the opportunity there of what we can focus on in our life, and find our purpose and really make a difference for others. So, I agree, and yours just happens to be visible, but don’t underestimate him. He’s a very wise, amazing man, and I think we’re gonna, he’s gonna change the world. He’s already changing the world, so, Nipun, thank you for staying up so late to be on this interview, and I look forward to continuing the conversation, and I will definitely introduce you to the International Labor organization people.

Nipun:              Thank you.

Debra Ruh:       Thank you so much. Thanks everybody. Bye-bye.


[outro music]


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