The next time you raise your voice at someone assuming they didn’t hear you or accuse them of being ‘hard of hearing’, stop and think again: it could be someone who’s actually deaf. That’s precisely the awareness and sensitivity that Mumbai-based Dhruv Lakra wants to generate through his venture Mirakle Couriers (MC), a courier service that employs deaf people. “On several occasions I’ve observed building watchmen being rude and screaming at other service staff, not realising that they could actually be deaf,” says this 28-year-old CEO who founded MC last year. Lakra is an Oxford graduate with a “strong finance corporate background.” He worked as an investment banker before chucking it to full-time pursue a cause closer to his heart.
The idea to start MC, he says, came – apart from his own earlier experiences in the non-profit sector (working during the Tsunami etc) — when his father met with an accident last year and couldn’t walk again. “Subconsciously then, the idea developed that I wanted to do something in the disability space. And being deaf is an invisible disability — you can’t ‘see’ that someone can’t hear — so they end up being more isolated.” Lakra says he also wanted to move away from traditional employment models like candle-making, because they don’t generate enough livelihood and given that store bought ones are more popular now.
So in November 2008, Lakra took up an office in south Mumbai’s busy Churchgate area, where he started with one boy and now has 35 people working for him. How did he recruit them? “I started with NGOs and most deaf people are clannish; so they pretty much know each other.” His focus is clear, his is not an NGO but a ‘social enterprise’ that employs lower income deaf adults in the age group of 20-30. Deliveries are done by the boys and sorting, accounting and other back-end work is done by girls who only don’t go out for deliveries, since he says “they would be more vulnerable to things like sexual abuse apart from the bias.” He also advocates the use of the word ‘deaf’. “Other terminology like ‘hearing impaired’ has been banned.”
Communication is one of the challenges he faces. “I learnt some sign language but haven’t yet taken a formal course. But that’s the only way you can communicate with them. And as boys got trained in this work, they in turn trained others.” But discrimination and handling perceptions are another challenge.
“People are insensitive. Once a lady called and yelled at me because her house was shut and though we left the delivery in the letter-box as the sender had instructed us, she claimed that her shipment didn’t come because we had hired ‘deaf and dumb people to do the job.’ Later, she found her delivery, which was lying with her maidservant. People think just because they can hear, they are normal. I know of instances when people thought that the deaf communicate with each other using Braille! We don’t even know basics about people who may be a little different than us.” That, he says, hurts. But what puts a smile on the staff at MC is when “people call back and give us more orders, saying we only want to use your courier service.” Fittingly then, Lakra has given his employees sunny orange T-shirts and matching caps as their uniform.