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Profile: Advantage Disadvantaged

Vibha Krishnamurthy, founder of Ummeed, charted a course all her own and has emerged as a name to reckon with

Photo Credit : Umesh Goswami

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Within a span of 15 years, Dr Vibha Krishnamurthy, 48, could have been a contented paediatrician all her life, but she decided to plough a furrow that today holds the aspirations of hundreds of disadvantaged children.

The move was more “serendipity than epiphany,” she says. When her husband, Ashish Karamchandani, got a job in the US, she joined him and trained in developmental paediatrics at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the Children’s Hospital, Boston. It was there that Dr Krishnamurthy became aware of the acute dearth of facilities in India for children with developmental disabilities.

Practically nobody in India had domain expertise in this area. On her return, she decided to set up a holistic centre in India that addresses developmental needs.

In November 2001, Dr Krishnamurthy launched Ummeed. Over time, the NGO has grown to be a one-stop shop for children with developmental disabilities — physical and mental.

Apart from Dr Krishnamurthy, Ummeed had a speech therapist, occupational therapist and a physiotherapist. Today, she has 62 professionals offering specialised care in every aspect of developmental disability and an annual budget of Rs 3 crore.

Open to All
From the outset, Dr Krishnamurthy was firm that Ummeed would be a family centre as it was the family that takes all decisions for a child. She also knew it must be a non-profit one, open to all across classes because most of those who need such care are poor.

From approximately 200 children a year, the organisation has grown organically to cater to 1,200 children a year, apart from the 25,000 that it reaches out to through its training programmes.

From a small room, Ummeed moved to a 4,000 square-feet area in the heart of south Mumbai, gifted by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust in 2006. That marked a turning point for Dr Krishnamurthy who could now dream bigger. An early intervention programme and another outreach programme were launched, as Dr Krishnamurthy realised that offering direct services was not enough. People had to be sensitised. “Because of stigma, or because people don’t know where to seek help, or to even identify children who need it, we have to reach out to them,” she says.

Moreover, she saw that Ummeed was unable to reach the poorest of the poor, which seemed to diminish her objective. As it is, she saw poverty and disability were directly related. For the poor, there was the additional issue of losing a day at work if they came to Ummeed.

The two outreach programmes at Ummeed include early child development and disability programmes which involves visiting high-risk neighbourhoods to create awareness about how to identify children with developmental delay, and how to help them. To augment Ummeed’s reach in the slums, Dr Krishnamurthy started a vertical to build training capacity.

Early Intervention
The third area she introduced at Ummeed was research. Researchers at Ummeed have developed a tool to detect and monitor disability in children under the age of three, the rationale being that the earlier you pick up the problem, the sooner you can act. This unique tool, copyrighted by a Turkish researcher, was developed jointly by Turkey, Argentina, South Africa and India, with Ummeed being the Indian arm, and now the official trainer.

The fourth dimension of advocacy was brought in to underscore the importance of helping children and families speak for themselves. Dr Krishnamurthy is a member of two WHO teams related to disability, and facilitates know-your-rights as well as training workshops for parents.

“It’s not enough for Ummeed alone to grow, but for the movement to grow,” says Dr Krishnamurthy. The WHO and UNICEF say 15 per cent or a staggering 50 million children in India have some form or disability or are at risk.

The Ummeed team is now stepping up its scope by investing in school outreach to ensure inclusive education for children with disabilities. Her pathways here include educating target groups of parents, teachers, and community workers to sensitise them to spot and treat disability.

There were many challenges, but not for a moment did Dr Krishnamurthy feel like quitting. “Ummeed was my oyster. I had two children at home but it was after coming here that I would feel uplifted,” she says. Her greatest motivation and source of joy have been the children she impacts. Recently, an ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) child came back after years and showed her his video project. “To my surprise, it was about ADHD. I was amazed how he saw it as part of himself — his gift and his challenge. It always blows my mind that these children always want to help other people.”

Looking back, she believes having a mentor early in her career would have helped her through the rough paths she had to cross alone. That said, she has managed handsomely. Donors are smiling with satisfaction, the children are coming back with gratitude, and parents look at it as their only source of succour. She believes that the best team leader should make herself dispensable. She also believes it’s important to surround oneself with like-minded individuals.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Seema Kamdar

The author is a senior journalist and communications consultant. She is based in Mumbai.

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