Manish Agarwal has been suffering from eyesight issues due to a retina deformity since he was a child. During his growing years, his dependence on glasses increased, and as he reached Class X, the ailment had become serious to a point where had to quit his education.
Instead, he began spending time at a cloth shop run by his father. In 2013, he lost his vision entirely. Alongside, he lost his will to live, he says. “I became severely depressed, as I had no social life, my friends had distanced themselves from me, and no person around me could sympathise or understand the pain I was in,” he says.
However, in 2017, he came across a Facebook page, Radio Udaan, an online radio platform. Here, he found many people like him who were suffering from various disabilities. They had created a support system for one another to help each other lead a meaningful life. He joined in on their conversations on social media and through video calling apps.
Now, at the age of 34, Manish is pursuing his graduation in arts and preparing for government jobs. “My life turned around after I connected with the radio team. The members inspired and motivated me. They helped me learn computer skills and provided me exposure to opportunities available for visually impaired persons. Thanks to the radio, I have friends across the world now,” he tells The Better India.
Like Manish, at least 10,000 people have married, sought jobs, learned computer skills, become singers, artists and earned a variety of skills through Radio Udaan.
Sharing one another’s pain
Hyderabad-based Meenal Singhvi, director at the radio, says the idea to start the platform stemmed from the need to help the specially-abled community at large.
Meenal herself lost her eyesight at the age of 28. She realised there would be many like her who needed support and encouragement.
“In 2007, I lost my vision during treatment for low blood pressure. I fell into a coma and recovered a few days later, only to realise that I had lost my vision. I was a homemaker, and everyone in my family accepted that my life would be confined to the four walls of the house,” she recalls.
Now 43, Meenal says that during the next couple of years, her family ensured they provided everything she needed and asked for. “I never left my room, and spent my time only listening to the television, or being alone. Doctors were hopeful that my vision could be restored. It did happen for a brief period on three occasions. I was hopeful too. However, in 2009, doctors counselled me and said my eyesight might never return,” she says.
She adds while this news caused her immense pain, she decided she could not spend the rest of her life in bed. “I learned that visually impaired people could learn computer skills. I asked my husband to provide me with one. A friend of mine helped install the required software that assists the blind through voice, and I started learning in 2010,” she says.
Meenal’s horizons expanded, and she started accessing information and making friends with special abilities. “I became part of groups and learned that many people were facing problems of emotional disconnect, depression, and lack of support from families, and were struggling to cope with life. A few members started brainstorming ideas to find ways to connect people from the community,” she adds.
A platform to build a better life
“We were firm about not starting an NGO. Eventually, we realised there was no media platform dedicated for specially-abled persons,” she says, adding that she and one visually impaired Danish Mahajan from Punjab, whom she met online, started Radio Udaan in 2014.
Meenal adds that on the first day itself, the radio registered around 1,000 listeners. Slowly, the team expanded to six, as people began to offer their help to design the website, create content, manage technicalities and handle other aspects of the operations.
The first month saw 5,000 listeners, and over the years, this has increased to a steady listenership of 45,000 from across 119 countries. The shows are accessible via the website, mobile app, Alexa and Google Home. The content is available in Hindi, Urdu, English, Telugu and Kannada.
Meenal says the job is voluntary, and no one gets paid. “All of us have other jobs. I work as a junior assistant at the Deputy Commissioner’s Office. I find time to run shows through the week. We don’t have an office, and everyone works from their home,” she adds.
Danish, who doubles up as a clerk at Punjab Mandi Board, says the radio organises a show called Community Colours to inform listeners about job vacancies meant for specially-abled in government and private sectors. “It is the only dedicated programme for the community. The other show, Tech City, explains how they can access technology and learn computer operations. It also updates them about new software in the market,” he says.
Danish, who lost vision at the age of 14, says other programmes initiate discussions on specially-abled issues. “We invite guests from NGOs, corporates, civil service officers and celebrities to encourage and motivate the listeners. It also exposes them to opportunities and helps bring ideas about potential skills or career choices they could pursue,” he adds.
The 32-year-old says that to maintain listenership, the radio organises contests like RJ Hunt to identify radio jockey talent, reality shows of singing competitions, plays, matrimony events, broadcast music, and arrange other engaging programmes. The programmes are accessible on YouTube, and the videos receive thousands of views.
Creating a safe space
Watch Manish performing stand-up comedy
Danish says they never thought the radio would have a massive impact. “We aimed to reach a listenership of 10,000, but have managed to surpass that. All volunteers manage their tasks alongside full-time jobs. The responsibility to prepare the script, create content, produce, edit and upload the show lies with the show host. It is a highly demanding task. But we all help one another. We have no financial support, and occasional donations help us experiment with the programmes,” he says.
He adds that maintaining an online radio to compete with other social media platforms like WhatsApp, where information is shared faster, becomes another challenge. “We aim to expand our reachability and hire full-time employees in future,” Danish says.
“The unique aspect of the radio is that it is the only place where we reach out to the specially-abled people who are scattered, live in isolation and waiting for emotional support and help to make something better of their life,” he says.
Resonating similar sentiments, Manish says, “Radio Udaan came as a huge support, especially when I had no friends and felt alone in the world. Only a specially-abled person can understand the plight of another.”
Edited by Divya Sethu