Visually challenged management graduates: How they broke the glass ceiling: A small study

Can they break the ‘glass ceiling’? Findings of a pilot survey of management graduates with visual challenges

By Revathi Sampath Kumaran*

Background

The National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, which has been in operation since 2006, recognizes people with disabilities as a valuable human resource for the country and seeks, importantly, to create an environment that would enable their “full participation in society”.

After half a decade since the policy was formulated, how far have we been able to ensure full participation in society for persons with disabilities? How far has this goal been realised in reality? In order to test the waters before exploring the impact of the policy through a series of larger studies, Retina India conducted a small pilot survey among graduates of some of the top management schools across the country. The web-based survey used a structured questionnaire that sought responses from blind persons and people with low vision to several open-ended questions:

  • How did they prepare for the entrance exam and interview, and what were the challenges they faced?
  • What was their experience on the campus when doing the course? Were there any hurdles, and how did they overcome them?
  • How did the corporate sector respond at the time of placement? Were there any obstacles to recruitment?
  • What has been their experience in the workplace? Is their designation and remuneration on par with their sighted batchmates?

In the following sections, we have compiled the responses of the management graduates regarding their experiences as students and as employees.

Findings

Dearth of accessible study material

The single most important academic challenge appears to be the dearth of accessible study material at every stage. Not only the coaching classes, but even the libraries of premier colleges of management are described as “useless.” There are no books in Braille, no digital books, and the computers do not have speech synthesizer software. [Please see notes at end of article for list of institutes represented in the survey]. The non-inclusive libraries present additional problems for those taking courses in Statistics, Information Technology and other visual-oriented subjects. Most students had to depend only on their laptops for access to study material.

Physical challenges

Mobility challenges are mentioned, but none of the respondents considers this a major hurdle. One of the campuses is built on a hill, with steep stairs and difficult to access areas. But the student was able to manage well with the help of friends and classmates. One student, who did the course staying off campus, does mention that he missed intensive interaction with batch-mates. However, with the help of a mobile phone he was able to overcome this lacuna fairly satisfactorily.

Ignorance and insensitivity

The ignorance and insensitivity of the officials of the coaching centres, the organisers of the entrance exams, the college administration, and the academics are recurring issues. “During the interview the professors stressed again and again on the point of visual loss but persuading them was not a new thing for me,” says Siddhu. Lama describes the insensitivity on the part of the authorities conducting the CAT as “exceptional.” Two of the respondents were not allowed to use their own scribes, and the scribes provided by the institutes were not sufficiently qualified. “My scribe was very poor in interpreting graphs and, therefore, I had to leave that section altogether”, says Sartaj. One respondent says: “I had to be my own disability officer,” and another says: “When others were preparing for exams, I was busy scanning books” because the college office could never provide him the study material in advance, despite his explicit and repeated expression of his needs.

Teachers and teaching

The experience with faculty members is mixed. Tapan’s professors would record the lectures, scan textbooks and even search the Internet and provide him with accessible material. In his case, many of them would supplement the classroom teaching with special one-to-one classes, especially for Statistics.

Sartaj also found his professors accommodative and understanding. “For instance, if the graph in economics was not accurate but the explanation was correct, the professor used to ignore the graph,” he says.

Irfan, on the other hand just ignored the faculty as they were indifferent.

Siddhu had a very bad experience with one of his professors who tried to humiliate him and harass him in various ways. However, he says the other faculty members, including the chairperson of the course, were generous in their admiration and praise for his abilities. Siddhu’s classmates also largely stood by him.

Conclusions regarding the academic experience

  • In general, there seems to be little awareness in colleges about rules and specifications pertaining to students with visual impairments. As in the world outside, the people on campus are a mixed bag: from the extremely helpful and admiring to the insensitive and brash. Faculty, office staff and students come in all hues.
  • The supplementary facilities such as the library and the computer room are not designed to be inclusive.
  • There is an overwhelming camaraderie among the students, and a majority of the faculty have a desire to be helpful. Between them, the supportive students and the enlightened faculty manage to provide a semblance of scaffolding to the motivated student.
  • The students in our sample are all rearing to be achievers in their own right. And, when they do achieve this goal, the appreciation is generous. The chairperson of Siddhu’s course, for instance, declined to write an article about him being the first ‘disabled’ person to be doing the course. The chairperson reportedly said: “He [Siddhu] is NOT a person with disability…he has proved it by showing extraordinary guts, and by competing with sighted classmates without any reservation”.

Career

Scepticism seems to rule the roost among recruiters. They cite various reasons for not being able to employ a person with visual impairment in their office: non-suitability of the infrastructure in their offices, daunting nature of the work, non-availability of assistance for supposed needs of a person with low vision, and lack of supportive systems. Despite many rejections, however, all except one respondent have secured jobs in good positions.

They are employed across a basket of sectors: Banking, education, finance, and information technology; in private, public, multi-national and not-for-profit companies. Significantly, one of the respondents is a strategy specialist in an organization working in the area of assistive devices for the blind.

The work profile of the sample population is also diverse: it spans strategic management, technology development, system analysis and system design, business development, project management and administration.

As their desire is to excel in whatever they are doing, and use their talents to the optimum, there is, naturally a great resistance to the tendency of companies to treat them as a part of their corporate social responsibility package (CSR). While several respondents have rued the fact that they are not given responsibilities that match their abilities, and some feel discriminated against where remuneration is concerned, an equal number feel, as Chaitra does, that “employers’ mindsets will change.” Indeed, several respondents have begun to feel that the perception of blindness among corporates and the attitude of recruiters towards employing people with visual impairment is moving away from extreme negativity. But there are notes of caution too.

“The stories in management books look rather interesting but real life management is not so straightforward, especially when you reach middle management or top management”, says Siddhu. His inputs to the global strategy development of his organization are appreciated, yet he feels that he needs to gain more experience in international affairs before pushing for a senior strategist position. Irfan, who is satisfied with the jobs offered to him on campus, feels that his job is on par with that of his sighted peers – both in terms of designation and remuneration. However, he stresses that it is very important to adapt to situations as they pan out. “The corporate world is totally different from the academic world,” he observes. Across the board, there is a perception that it is difficult to get jobs, particularly in the present context of global meltdown.

A lot appears to depend on what each individual aspires for, how they adapt to given situations and how they plan their growth trajectories. “Judge yourself … do not follow the herd,” exhorts Siddhu. However, it is obvious that, in a major departure from the past, people with visual challenges have increasingly begun to opt for a dynamic academic stream rather than courses in humanities or other arts subjects, perceived to be less rigorous. Most of these spirited youngsters want to compete in the job market on equal terms with their “sighted counterparts”. They see a degree in management as an assurance of a bright future, as something that will enhance their employment prospects. Some even say that they chose to join a tough and demanding course because they relished the prospect of successfully negotiating a steep learning curve. Sartaj, who has specialised in Finance and Control, simply enjoys the prospect of “number crunching”. He is, naturally enough, a manager in one of the country’s top market regulators.

The Road Ahead

Aspiring to study in the best institutes of higher education in the country, hoping to make careers in futuristic streams of service and industry, and to do it in full recognition of their worth and merit surely falls within the ambit of the National Policy’s objective? But six years into the implementation of the policy there still seems to be a huge gap between what has been done and what needs to be done.

The following are suggestions compiled from the responses received regarding steps that can be taken to see that the policies meant for people with disabilities are realised in reality.

  • Fear of the blind seems to be hard-wired into the human psyche. Address this by spreading awareness about the assistive technology used by the visually challenged and how they have leveraged it to become independent.
  • Encourage corporate executives to demonstrate the use of screen readers in the workplace so that people realize that persons with visual impairments can be as productive and efficient as the non-disabled employees.
  • Highlight success stories of people with visual impairments in the media; produce documentaries on their life at home, work and play and make these highly visible by presenting them at various fora. This will change the negative mindset of people about blindness by showing how visual disabilities need not make a person any less efficient or effective than those without such disabilities.
  • Give an impetus to promote at least some of the extraordinary people with visual impairment to top positions in companies. This will break down barriers and open the path for other companies to emulate them, and also provoke less able people with challenges to equip themselves with skills and aspire for progress.

Notes:

  • The population sample, though small [N=10; one invalid response] reflects diversities of age, academic background, career profile, community, gender and region. Eighty per cent of the population is blind, and the rest have low vision. One respondent reported gradually deteriorating vision, with 90% vision loss at the time of the survey [Sep 2012]. The respondents are drawn from a spectrum of management disciplines.
  • The over-sampling of males reflects ground reality of gender representation in top management schools in India.
  • Most had a basic degree in Commerce and Business Administration/ Management. There was one Arts graduate and one Engineer. All of them have completed the management course between 2002 and 2012, except one who completed in 1983. HR and Finance are the most popular disciplines, followed by business management and marketing and strategy. Forty per cent of the students were in a residential course.
  • Colleges represented by the sample [in alphabetical order] are: Chetana’s R K Institute of Management & Research, Christ University, Delhi University, IIM – Kozhikode, International Management Institute, Modern Institute of Management and Business Administration, Pondicherry University, Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, University of Pune.
  • All names have been changed to protect the identities of the respondents.

* The author would like to acknowledge the sincerity with which the respondents have shared their experiences. She would also like to thank Mr. Giridhar Khasnis and Mr. G. Vamshi for making the questionnaires available for this article. The article appeared in the November 2012 issue of ‘InSight’, a publication of Retina India.

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