S Gokulakrishnan studied hard and snagged his first job soon after he earned his degree. A year later, like many of us do, he took a break from work to rethink his career. This 26-year-old commerce graduate and chartered accountant (intermediate) from Chennai in India’s south, is a person who is blind and he found re-entering the job market one of the biggest challenges of his life. Multiple job applications and a series of interviews were getting him nowhere. So, Gokulakrishnan listened to a friend’s advice and signed up with v-shesh –an employment placement service that specializes in upskilling job seekers and students with disabilities.
Most of v-shesh’s training used to take place in physical classrooms, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdown changed that. The company has adapted to remote learning via Microsoft Teams, leaning heavily on a range of built-in accessibility features to keep operating. It hopes its new virtual working and teaching environments will make its trained-up clients even more employable.
V-shesh takes its name from a play on the words shesh and vishesh, which mean left behind and unique, respectively, in many Indian languages. It trains clients to adjust to a corporate environment and work in a team and manage stress. It also teaches specialized digital and IT subjects and other must-haves, such as English and math skills. It then helps them apply for jobs, matches them with potential employers, and guides them through for the interview process.
Lockdown restrictions came into force in India soon after Gokulakrishnan started his training. He was worried about his chances of getting hired, but, as luck would have it, a major global investment company asked v-shesh to find someone with a finance industry background like his.
“I got the job amid the pandemic, which is a great thing,” he says, crediting v-shesh’s consistent support. “Before the (job) interview, they made sure I was comfortable with using the software the company uses. Screen sharing was a challenge. So, we tried different solutions for working in a virtual environment. They ensured I was proficient on all the platforms and guided me through to the last stage.”
Gokulakrishnan is one of the 3,000 job seekers that v-shesh has placed in the past three years alone. V-shesh does not collect any placement fee from candidates but instead delivers paid-for services to employers who embrace inclusion in spirit and action. To create an ecosystem, they work closely with companies, many of them major multi-nationals, to understand their needs, and help them devise human resource policies, sensitizing sessions, sign language learning sessions, and screening profiles.
V-shesh was founded in 2009 by P. Rajasekharan (Raja) and Shashaank Awasthi. With prior background in banking, they built v-shesh to provide services for both people with disabilities and employer organizations to nurture an inclusive workplace.
“Except for a fancy building and cafeteria, our training centers resemble what a person should do in any standard workplace. That is, come in on-time, be dressed appropriately, coordinate, and participate in discussions, turn in work daily, and have someone to report to,” Raja says.
V-shesh’s 40 employees are spread across five cities in India, and work on projects in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh too. Its trainers mirror the diversity and inclusion it is seeking to promote in the workforce–40% are people with disabilities, and 60% are women.
“Once I completed college, I started as a volunteer with v-shesh. I learned sign language from people who are deaf,” Anupriya says. “I started as a job coach and learned more about people who are deaf. My role is very diverse now, and I get to work with people of different disabilities.”
Complementing these two features are the pictorial dictionary and immersive reader, through which trainees with different cognitive disabilities can follow vocabulary and improve their reading and retention capabilities seamlessly. For persons who are blind, the Narrator screen reader, part of the Windows Ease of Access suite, helps collaborate via chat. Apart from accessibility features and shifting their training sessions into remote video meetings, collaborating directly on Teams without having to switch between multiple apps has helped both the trainers and trainees get comfortable with the new virtual environment.
This shift in digital training has also helped v-shesh onboard job seekers during the pandemic safely. Deepthi Ganesh, who is in the final year of her undergraduate degree in computer application, came on board in August. The 21-year-old is a person with autism. She signed up for courses in Microsoft Office, communications, technology, and life skills to prepare herself for the workforce once she graduates from a college in Mumbai.