Mirakle Couriers is doing what no one else thought do. The company employs the services of only deaf adults for its Mumbai-based courier operations, marrying enterprise and social cause. Founder and CEO Dhruv Lakra talks about his unique venture:
How did you end up here?
I graduated from HR College in Mumbai, after which I worked for Merill Lynch for two years. I left Merill Lynch to go join the tsunami relief efforts, and worked with a firm providing strategic focus to non-profits. Through all the chaos, I encountered a lot of people with disabilities and saw how much more they struggled because of neglect and the lack of systems in place for them. I thought they needed a lot of support, particularly the deaf, to be included in society. Indian society places labels on the disabled, separates them from “normal people” and underestimates their capabilities. In this case, sympathy and treating them as “special” only worsens the problem, rather than help them deal with daily life.
What was the genesis of Mirakle Couriers?
One day I was on a bus where I spotted a deaf boy. I saw that he was having trouble with even the simplest tasks, he couldn’t hear the announcements, nor could he communicate with anyone to find out which stop he had to get off at. I realised that disability is invisible to the public and therefore not understood properly.
People who are deaf are only physically disabled, their mind is completely sane, and through sign language they have developed their own means of communication and culture. They need tremendous support to be integrated into mainstream society but, given a chance, they are just as capable as everyone else. I thought of ways to employ the deaf so that they could earn their own incomes and gain respect and I landed on the idea of a courier service because the process does not depend on verbal communication.
What situations or reactions have you encountered?
The reactions are varied. There is a lot of positive reaction from educated people and those who have seen a bit of the world. They understand our motivation and impact. But, a lot of people do not understand the important distinction between mental and physical disability. They assume the blind or the deaf are mentally incapable of being “normal” and quickly cast them off as useless and untrainable.
With the community of the deaf itself, there is scepticism about Mirakle Couriers as they have long been isolated from the mainstream. There has been slow transformation on both sides of the fence. We have also received a lot of favourable attention in the media.
What are your goals?
The eventual goal is to expand the business and turn it into a success. By doing this, we will be able to employ more people, increase our staff’s salaries and improve their quality of life. The other indirect goal is to prompt other companies to employ people with disabilities and see that they are more capable than just filling government quota. We want to be game changers in the private sector and encourage other companies to see that employing people with disabilities does not hinder your success. We want to set a benchmark for the way people with disabilities will be employed.
What have been the setbacks, and what has helped you along?
Cultural issues remain a constant hurdle, whether with a client or new employees. The best part is that by building good relations with clients and the deaf community, we have become very powerful from it. I try to talk to our employees’ families, and also find out from clients how they feel about our services. In the end, our service should surpass that of other courier companies.
What are your proudest moments?
We won the Hellen Keller Award in 2009 for being a role model for companies to employ those with disabilities. We are extremely proud when our employees are able to support their families with the income they earn at Mirakle Couriers, which is better than the poorly paid jobs they were at earlier. Several of our employees are married and have children; it is inspiring to know we have had a positive impact on their lives.
What do you think is needed to drive change in India?
Many issues run deep in terms of how people perceive the deaf and the disabled in general. People do not take the time to understand those who are different from them. Things would be better if more us learned the Indian Sign Language, if there was more government support, especially in providing education and employment.
Out of 8 million deaf people in India, only 37 per cent find employment; the rest sit at home and are constantly told how useless they are by others around them. The deaf have been oppressed and ostracised, which makes them frustrated and angry, which is counterproductive. Though things are improving, they are still far from being fixed.
What has been your biggest learning?
Running a business with a social purpose is much more complicated than it seems. On top of trying to make a business successful from the ground up, there are many societal and human rights issues to deal with. It can get frustrating. However, there are moments of joy when we can see the impact – how much they have learnt, their growing confidence, how much happier they are because of the work they do.
To know more, visit www.miraklecouriers.com
– Mumbai Action team