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‘They Called Me a Mad Man’: How The ‘Angel For Disabled’ Has Helped Thousands Find Jobs

As a child, Harishchandra Sude lost vision in one eye and encountered prejudice. Despite this, he dedicated himself to creating change, establishing Grameen Shramik Pratishthan in Maharashtra, which provides skill-based training to individuals with visual impairment and disabilities.

‘They Called Me a Mad Man’: How The ‘Angel For Disabled’ Has Helped Thousands Find Jobs

Trigger warning: This story has mentions of suicide.

When Harishchandra Sude, the founder of the non-profit Grameen Shramik Pratishthan, was asked about his childhood aspirations, his response was rather peculiar and profound.

He recalls how during an Independence Day celebration, where each student was required to share their dreams and aspirations, he had stood up and promptly declared, “I want to create a world where everyone helps each other; a world envisioned by Gandhi himself!”

While many may have smiled at young Harishchandra’s aspirations, little did they know that this determined boy would go on to empower over 1,000 people with visual impairment and other disabilities — granting them autonomy.

For the past 43 years, through his organisation, he has been providing them with training in acupressure, loom operation, and graphic designing in digital media.

The journey to independence

Harishchandra is the first university graduate, not only in his family but also in his entire village. Despite being a young man with extraordinary dreams, societal expectations nudged him towards seeking employment in the bustling “big cities”.

Recalling those pivotal moments, he shares, “When you’re the first in your family or village to successfully graduate from university, all eyes are on you. My father and the villagers anticipated that I would secure a job and contribute financially to the household.”

However, Harishchandra’s aspirations diverged from conventional expectations. He explains, “From a very young age, I realised that certain segments of society receive little to no assistance. They are often marginalised and forced to depend on others. Securing a job was never my intention; my goal was to assist the overlooked sections of society.”

Now fondly called the ‘Angel for the disabled’, Harishchandra’s childhood was a far cry from being happy or secure. “I was only a young child of five years when I caught smallpox. Due to the disease, I lost vision in one of my eyes and developed lots of scars on my face,” he says.

While the young boy survived the disease, he became an outsider to other kids in the village. “The scars on my face and the loss of vision made me a ‘difficult child’. My mother, who was always worried about me, passed away the same year,” he says.

Harishchandra Sude, the founder of Grameen Shramik Pratishthan.
Harishchandra Sude, the founder of Grameen Shramik Pratishthan.

The home was left in a state of disarray after his mother passed away. “My father and my brothers used to go to the fields and work. My sister, who was not more than 12 years old, was also married off. There was no one to take care of me,” he says.

He continues, “I was sent to live with my grandmother and that shift, in many ways, gave me the right set of opportunities to do what I always wanted to do.”

He got admitted into a college in the Latur district but couldn’t afford the fees. “The principal at the time was a man of similar beliefs as mine. I used to tell him how I wanted to work for society. He secured a job as an errand boy for me in the college itself which helped me pay the fees,” he adds.

“It was his vision that helped me connect with Baba Amte, the legendary social worker and activist who worked with people suffering from leprosy,” he says, “My principal sent me to him, seeking help for my vision. I used to go to his addresses and lectures to understand how one can help other people on a macro level.”

‘Was called a fool behind my back’

After completing his graduation, he moved back to his village in Latur district to help underprivileged people gain employment.

“I was getting my hands dirty on the field but no one could understand what I was doing. I was the first one to graduate, they expected me to do some job. They could not understand why I would come back to the village. They considered me a failure,” he says.

Demotivated by all the comments, he moved to Pune. “I was disheartened and lacked direction in my work. I moved to Pune seeking help from other social workers,” he says.

Baba Amte then suggested that he should first become financially independent and become a teacher. “There was a school for the blind in front of my college, and once I completed my degree, I started to teach the kids there. It was there that I learnt that the kids get moved from one organisation to another constantly, either due to financial difficulties or lack of infrastructure. This hampered their growth and gave me the idea to do something to help people with visual impairments,” he shares.

With this idea in mind of creating a “Swadhar Kendra” in rural areas and villages, he left the city again. “The idea was that I wanted these children to get training and give them work opportunities,” he says.

When he decided to leave the school and move back to the village, a student of his who also worked for him, decided to move too. “He could sing and dance well, and I used his art to grab the attention of the villagers. The sarpanch took us to the governor to get us a piece of land to stay and work on,” he says.

This was the foundation stone of what later became Grameen Shramik Pratishthan.

“We got a 40×40 sq ft piece of land and we built a ‘jhopadi’ (hut). We would make bedsheets and blankets in the hut and then sell them. People were intrigued as to how a partially-impaired or blind person could do such a thing,” he says.

Word started spreading. Soon, more and more visually impaired people started to get in touch with him. “I could finally see my dream shaping up. Soon, we were living with many more visually impaired people,” he says.

The NGO helps people with disability find jobs.
The NGO helps people with disability find jobs.

But all the activities came to a halt when the area was hit by heavy rains and a massive flood; everything was washed away. “There were too many people staying with me. We had lost all the huts that we had built; I had lost all hope. It was the people who encouraged me saying that bad times always pass away,” he says.

Harishchandra went back to his native village Dangewadi and asked his father for help. “We had some ancestral land and I asked my father for my share. Although I got a lot of retaliation from him as he believed that this was a waste of time, he gave me three-acre land,” he shares.

Harishchandra sold off that land and used the money to build the new building at a land provided by the District Collector in Village Budhoda in the Ausa block of Latur district, which now holds the Grameen Shramik Pratishthan.

On fighting the society and his family to start the organisation, Harishchandra says, “I was the first person to graduate from college. I could have just stuck to a job and ‘given back’ to my family, but I wanted to use my education to give back to society.”

Foundation of the NGO & how you can help

Harishchandra has spent decades of his life caring for the underserved. His son Prashant Sude is following in his father’s footsteps too.

“My father still works and stays every day, but I have now taken over the operations of the organisation. There are a few levels of interventions that we do to help people with disabilities,” he says.

The NGO works to help people with disabilities by giving them training in different areas to help them become independent.

“Under our Swadhar Scheme, what we initially did was train them in recycling old sarees into mats. The disposal of old sarees is a significant issue, contributing to environmental harm. At our hand-me-down centre, we recycle these sarees into mats, providing a sustainable solution to this problem. In doing so, they not only earn a livelihood but also contribute to addressing the environmental challenges associated with non-biodegradable waste,” he adds.

However, with changing times, Prashant realised that this training might not be viable after a few years.

“We have to keep changing with time. I realised that this might not be a very financially smart occupation in the future. In 2010, we started giving acupressure and massage training to visually impaired people. Massage is an excellent livelihood activity for visually challenged individuals because they possess sharp sensory abilities,” he says.

The training methods are simple yet effective, allowing both less-educated and well-educated individuals to learn acupressure massage systematically and scientifically. “Through our course, students learn anatomy, physiology, and various massage techniques practically. As a result, they become experts in the field of acupressure massage techniques,” he adds.

Once the individuals are trained, they can return to their native village and practise there or stay at the centre and earn at least Rs 500 per massage.

The NGO also helps persons with disabilities get married and start a home. “The way society looks at people with disabilities, especially women, in villages and small towns, is concerning. If an individual wants to get married to someone, we take their responsibility and help them with all the arrangements,” he says, adding that they have facilitated over 50 marriages so far.

Harishchandra Sude's son Prashant who now takes care of the operations.
Harishchandra Sude’s son Prashant now heads of the operations.

Vidnyan Masure, a visually impaired person from Nanded, experienced prejudice all her life. She shares, “I was very depressed and had low self-esteem. I even tried to end my life. However, joining GSP changed my life completely. I registered to learn massage therapy and I am now fully independent. I work in a naturopathy centre in my village and also teach this art to young visually impaired girls.” The 37-year-old is now happily married and feels a sense of dignity and independence.

In 2021, the NGO came up with another branch of training. “We teach various digital skills to individuals with disabilities, such as graphic design, video editing, reel making, and social media management. These skills are particularly suitable for them because while those with locomotor disabilities may have restricted movement, they conserve their energy and focus it more on creative thinking.”

The four-month course places significant emphasis on practical skills, where students learn to use software like Canva, CorelDraw, and other tools to create designs, edit photos, and produce digital content.

“Over the past two years, we have trained 80 individuals with disabilities in these digital skills, providing them with opportunities for meaningful employment and empowerment. They use the labs at the NGO to practise their skill and do their work without having to move a lot,” he says.

While Prashant and Harishchandra along with many volunteers have helped hundreds of people, Prashant now wishes to expand the model throughout Maharashtra.

“The visually impaired in our country are treated as second-class citizens. They are equally skilled if given the right set of opportunities, but they are neglected often by their own family. With Swadhaar, we are aiming to reduce this gap by presenting them with the right opportunities. We want to help them become independent, self-sustaining, and live the life they deserve,” says Prashant.

Harishchandra and Prashant’s fight to give equal rights to people with disabilities does not have to be theirs alone. You can contribute to their cause too. Click here to do your part.

(Edited by Padmashree Pande and Pranita Bhat)

(All pictures credit: Prashant Sude)

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