The group of experts seated at the dais had barely anything in common. One was an author and an IT industry leader, the other the head of a mental health institution and the third was a former bureaucrat at the health department. One cause had brought all of them together: taking mental health issues to the common public and spreading awareness.
Subroto Bagchi, the author and chairman of MindTree (IT company) Technologies, who helped Indians understand the strength of our culture and make sense of the changes brought forth by globalization through his books and articles, described the purpose that brought them together.
“We would provide a repository of information for the general public on mental health,” he said of White Swan Foundation, a not for profit organization he formed.
“We would provide actionable information that gives knowledge that help people identify mental health patients to handle their diseases, understand their rights and ask for services that they are entitled to,” he said, in a tone that suggested he meant business.
It’s not surprising to find someone in the IT field like Mr. Bagchi starting a foundation with the intention of doing some good to people fighting depression or milder mental health issues that usually go unnoticed. But the surprising thing, which also turns out to be an important trend setter for organizations fighting for disability rights, spreading awareness or empowering them is the fact that White Swan Foundation has partnered with the National Institute for Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), the leading mental health institution in the country.
WSF has signed a memorandum of understanding with NIMHANS to “create and publish high quality content that keeps in mind the diverse needs of people” which it is offering to the public through its website whiteswanfoundation.org.
With advisors having technological, health and socio-cultural background, WSF has resolved to work on both the right content and the right delivery modes to reach people.
The most important aspect of this assemblage of expertise is the coming together of Information Technology and health, an effective combination of what people usually call tech and domain expertise. The combination has always proved effective elsewhere and there is no reason it wouldn’t in this instance.
When the world is taking rapid strides in terms of leveraging technology to address important issues, the disability sector is rather slow in adapting it.
It’s wrong to say they don’t use technology. In fact, some of them are very prolific users of the social media. But using technology is different from effectively leveraging it.
There is a need to aggressively deploy technology in both spreading awareness and reaching out to disabled population fallen through the crack somewhere between their last medical check, going through the disability and feel stranded. So while non-governmental organizations are diligent in delivering services, there is still a long way to go in terms of turning their focus on convincing those yet to realize the real potential of persons with disability as a valuable resource.
Social media, the people-centric technological innovation in the last decade, needs to be used more effectively for this purpose.
The other most important aspect of the WSF-NIMHANS deal is the effort to bring the idea of ‘ecosystem creation’ to the social sector.
No doubt, organizations could have embarked on similar initiatives before, but the fact that both the health and social organizations involved in this initiative understood the need for each other is significant.
For a very long time, the health and disability sectors in this country were content to be couched in their respective environments, allowing an artificial wall to come up between them. Each was happy about their respective services, which, though effective, proves to be inadequate in terms of awareness creation and establishing a system that supports everyone.
Then HIV/AIDS came along and the wall started to fall apart brick by brick.
But, such is the fate of this country that what applies in one sector need not necessarily apply to the other. So the wall between hospitals and disability organizations continued to stand.
As a result those suffering sudden and unexpected disability are left behind. Not that the doors of the NGOs are closed to them, but they should be convinced about the importance of entering it since the services they provide are important and life-changing. It’s also vital that such a help reach them and their care givers quickly.
But then, doctors have their plates full in terms of attending patients and NGOs are focused more on the task at hand, leaving the wall exist for far too long.
As a result, doctors diagnosing disabling conditions (particularly pertaining to the eye) find it harder to convince the patients and families that disability isn’t necessarily the end of life, while NGOs have little or no opportunity to reach out to those who find a disease or bodily condition that results in a permanent disability.
The WSF-NIMHANS partnership also offers the hope that people with specific expertise reach out to each other to serve the community. “You’d have heard many speak about India’s ‘demographic dividend’ (how the country can tap into its young and aspiring human resources). But if we were to lose them to mental health and leave them without help, then it would be a loss to the country,” NIMHANS director Dr. P. Satishchandra mentioned.
Combining the strengths of each expert is the only way to properly utilize human resources neglected because of their disability. This’s the kind of broader social and national cause that often brings expertise together. That’s also why we need an ecosystem in place, rather than more organizations.
**As mentioned before, my book, “Lights Out”, is available in various book stores and in online retailing platforms like amazon.com and flipcart.com (for cash on delivery). It talks about my slow disability and its impact on myself and my family. Proceeds go to APRED, the organization I support. So please buy and support the cause of gradual vision loss and empowerment of those with rare eye conditions.
**Association of People with Rare Eye Diseases (APRED) needs volunteers who could spend four hours a week for an online project we are taking up. If you are up to dedicating four hours a week for doing social work (which requires a PC/laptop and system time) please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org