Published: 15th April 2020
Meet the IAS officer who set up a 24x7 helpline for the differently-abled to get counselling, meds in TN
Tamil Nadu's Department of Welfare of the Differently-abled has come up with a 24x7 helpline to assist the differently-abled during the lockdown and are handling up to 3000 calls every day
Eight-year-old Maya (name changed) has a hearing impairment. In order to receive speech therapy, Maya now lives with her grandparents in the district of Namakkal in Tamil Nadu. Her mother Nithiya, who works full time in Karnataka normally travels once a week to visit her and that is the only thing that keeps Maya emotionally stable. However, since the lockdown, Nithiya has been unable to travel to see her daughter, thereby causing a great deal of anxiety to Maya and making it difficult for her grandparents to control her.
That's when Nithiya decided to call the helpline service started by the Tamil Nadu government's Department of Welfare of the Differently-Abled. She requested help to travel to Namakkal to be with her daughter. Her request was processed immediately and all the necessary arrangements were made for her travel.
Nithiya and her daughter, after being reunited
Like Maya, there are about 11 lakh differently-abled people in the state of Tamil Nadu, many of whom have been severely affected by the lockdown. Johny Tom Varghese, Director, Department of Welfare of the Differently-Abled, TN government explains some of the challenges they face. He says, "Take for instance the visually-challenged. The whole idea of social distancing is kind of irrelevant for them as they do everything based on touch. They need to feel things. A lot of them are hawkers or people who work in the transport sector. The percentage of differently-abled in the organised sector where they are assured of a salary is very less. So they're affected financially as well. Secondly, for transportation, the differently-abled, especially the lower locomotive disabled people depend on public transport and that was completely taken off. All this, coupled with the general economic uncertainty caused them to be stuck in their houses without any income."
Varghese and his team realised that this was a big challenge and so started a helpline service on March 26. It started out with 10 volunteers and now runs with about 42 volunteers. Some work remotely, some at Johny's office. They pick up calls, and categorise them according to district administration — social welfare officers, revenue divisional officers, sub-collectors and differently-abled welfare officers. The requests are then processed and necessary services are provided.
So far, the team has received about 17,500 calls. Before the government's Rs 1000 ration scheme was announced, Johny's team took care of all the ration needs of the differently-abled. Now, they focus on delivering it to those who are not able to go to the ration shops. They also help them with medical emergencies and transportation. Varghese, who took charge as Director in August 2019, adds, "The second service we offer is on-call therapy. We have physiotherapists who offer their services. We also have sign-language experts for taking video calls from the hearing and speech impaired."
Through the helpline service, Varghese and his team have been able to reach out to about 70,000 differently-abled people, including those in shelters and special schools. In some places like Maramalai Nagar, differently-abled people live in a colony, so they also get a lot of bulk requests. Handling about 3,000 calls per day, they have truly been life-savers. One miscommunication that they'd like to clear though is that the initiative is not a scheme for the differently-abled. "This is an emergency service. Only people who do not have ration cards, cannot go out, living alone, do not have caretakers or are in some kind of emergency can avail this," says Johnny.
If you're disabled and need help, dial the helpline number 18004250111
Hearing and speech-impaired people can place a video call to 9700799993