IBM volunteers in India help disabled students learn computer skills

Story of service • India • August 2013

It has been a "life changing
experience" for Karthik Mulakaluri,
an IBM human resources professional
in India. Since 2009 he has
volunteered at a local not-for-profit
supporting the employability of
people with cerebral palsy and
other disabilities-he's shown here
teaching a computer skills class.
It was a moment that filled Karthik Mulakaluri, an IBM human resources professional in India, with joy.

At an IBM celebration of service gathering in Bangalore, India, a young man named Manjunath with cerebral palsy spoke to the group saying, "I thank IBM and the Spastics Society of Karnataka for giving students with disabilities a chance to chart their life and fulfill their desires and ambitions."

Since 2011 Karthik has led a team of IBM volunteers assisting students with cerebral palsy and other disabilities at the Spastics Society of Karnataka (SSK)-Manjunath was among the first graduates of their computer skills course. "The satisfaction you get when a smile comes on a student's face after they've learned a new skill is immense and cannot be measured," Karthik says.

Not impossible-I'm Possible

Karthik's association with SSK started four years ago when he joined IBM. "I was browsing the IBM internal On Demand Community website and noticed there were several IBM team members doing good work with SSK," he says. "I volunteered immediately and realized in the first class at SSK that it was going to be a life changing experience for me."

SSK-a not-for-profit organization located in Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka-provides a comprehensive set of diagnostic and intervention services for people with cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual and learning disabilities.

After initially starting as a volunteer, Karthik now leads a team of IBM volunteers who play a vital role at SSK-participating in everything from organizational strategy and vision development to curriculum creation and classroom instruction. "We collaborate with SSK in enabling, building and driving a progressive and self-sufficiency model in the areas of skills development, marketing, entrepreneurship and employability," says Karthik. The team has conducted workshops for teachers and staff at SSK to help them build a roadmap and an enduring vision for the organization.

Also, IBM volunteers and Karthik have taught courses on basic and advanced computer technology coupled with personality development-often social skills are equally as valuable as trade and professional skills for students with disabilities. "There was a mother who told us her daughter didn't talk to anyone and sometimes only talked to herself looking at the mirror," Karthik says, recalling a student in their first class. "I take great pride that at the end of the 12 week course, this student started talking to her friends and other people in different age groups, and responding to our questions during the classes. Because of this incident, I've come to believe that the saying, 'Impossible itself says, I'm Possible', is true."

Manjunath, the SSK student who spoke at the IBM celebration of service presentation, says "After completing the course, I've become independent in my computer work, more confident, and capable of teaching another student. I also understand the direction my own life can take if I am serious about my studies and my communication."

Several students have gotten jobs with the skills they learned in the IBM-led courses at SSK-delivering on the organization's vision to shape the future of their students by integrating them into the mainstream and making them employable.

The human ingredient

Over the years, IBM and its volunteers have supported SSK in a number of ways including helping them establish a Comprehensive Assistive Technology Center, providing KidSmart computers, sponsoring a five-day computer training workshop for those with autism spectrum disorders, and donating systems with accessibility software for the visually impaired.

Yet Karthik admits that their victories have not been without some difficulty. "The journey has not been so easy," he says. "Sometimes it is easier to teach tough things, but it becomes very tough when you teach something at a basic level. When normal techniques of teaching don't work, you need to apply innovative ways of teaching."

Creative thinking may be the most valuable resource volunteers bring to SSK. Ms. Rukmini Krishnaswamy, the director of SSK, says that while technology is helping their children live better lives and making them a part of society, "it is the human ingredient that is so very important."

At SSK, students benefit from the support they receive from volunteers, and volunteers receive a different reward. Karthik says, "Volunteering at SSK gives me an immense sense that I'm making a change in society. I can also feel a change in me. I'm not the same person as before. I have become more socially sensitive and value the purpose of living and sharing." He adds, "Feelings are the language of the soul and at times it's extremely difficult to exactly express and describe feelings and emotions in words."

Karthik also credits his time at SSK with making him a better public speaker, being able to present his thoughts and views in a clearer manner and dealing with difficult situations more sensitively-skills that aid him in his professional career. He's also picked up some technical and business skills attending SSK classes given by his IBM peers.

"Stepping out of my comfort zone wasn't easy," Karthik says. "This volunteering experience has been a roller coaster ride with lots of excitement, new experiences and learning. My dream is that the students with special needs at SSK will be self-sustaining one day. Inclusion can never succeed without our endeavor in making the world work better."

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In India, the word "spastic" is used neutrally and not as a pejorative-several organizations supporting people with neuro-muscular and developmental disabilities include it in their name.