How two Shri Ram students are helping neuro-diverse people gain recognition

 How two Shri Ram students are helping neuro-diverse people gain recognition

Avni Singh (left) and Tarini Malhotra have set up Nishant Project to help neuro-diverse people

Upasana Kaura

Two students, Tarini Malhotra (Class 10) and Avni Singh (Class 11) have joined hands and set up a project, Project Nishant to help neuro-diverse people get recognition, respect, gainful employment, and self-sustaining opportunities.
They recently held an online exhibition that featured over 50 paintings made by young neuro-diverse artists, some as young as eight years. We speak to Tarini Malhotra to know more:

How and when did you think about starting this project?
I study at a school (The Shri Ram School Moulsari) which has built an inclusive system with sensitivity as a core value, and we have friends who are neurodiverse. Our families too have always inspired us to work on different challenges that society is facing. In 2020, we did a fundraiser for a school working with special-needs students. The impact it had set us on a path to do something more sustainable and long-term for neuro-diverse young adults. That’s how Project Nishant came up, in July 2021. Since then, we’ve been working on Phase 1 of our project – developing our website, creating a sustainable ecosystem of NGOs, companies and neuro-diverse individuals, and getting our first few candidates hired!

How challenging was it to connect with neuro-diverse people?
Our NGO partners helped us identify employable neuro-diverse people with interest and determination, and we then interacted with them and their family members.
Naturally, there were some apprehensions, especially among the parents, who were worried about how their children would be perceived and treated in the workplace, and if they would be able to handle the work they were given. Through effective communication and curating success stories, we have been able to overcome this challenge to a great extent, although we would like to conduct more parent workshops and in-person interactions in the future to better understand the apprehensions and aspirations of our parent community.

There is still a lot of reservation among people about mentally-challenged people. How do you overcome that?
Society, especially in the Indian context, has considered neuro-diverse people to be ‘disabled’ and ‘burden’ for a long time, and there is a lot of stigma attached to neurodiversity. While there is a much greater emphasis on inclusion than there was before, mainstream employment of neuro-diverse people is still uncharted territory. By convincing people that our candidates have untapped talent (for example, through our virtual art exhibition), giving them real-life examples through Project Nishant icons, and by conducting sensitization workshops with the help of our partner NGOs, we have been trying to overcome the reservations that exist about neuro-diverse individuals. Such a shift in mindset isn’t something that can be accomplished easily, but we hope that Project Nishant will have a cascading effect, creating a lasting impact, and hopefully, a more inclusive society.

How many neuro-diverse artists are on board with you?
Twelve neuro-diverse artists (ages 8 to 21) from various NGOs across Delhi-NCR participated in our virtual art exhibition and got the opportunity to showcase their talent and imagination through a total of 51 paintings!

How was the response to it? Any plans for holding a second one?
Response has been truly overwhelming! Our Virtual Art Exhibition was attended by more than 80 people from across the globe, and out of 51 paintings, 42 have already been sold. This reflects that the art made by our neuro-diverse artists has a lot of takers and their creative expression can generate livelihood opportunities for them. Moreover, we have been getting enquiries from companies who would like our artists to make paintings for them according to their own specifications – which is a powerful idea as it means that our artists can attain self-employment opportunities as well. We may hold another art exhibition in December 2022 – perhaps even offline, if the situation improves! – but in the meantime, we are looking forward to paintings being commissioned by our industry partners.

Tell us about your partner NGOs and organisations. How do you work together?
Our ecosystem is growing with five NGOs and 11 companies–plus a lot more in the pipeline!
Our NGO partners identify neurodiverse young adults with skills and potential for employment; along with interest and determination to make a difference and onboard these candidates on our platform. And the Project Nishant team brings sensitive and inclusive companies on board. We then match the skills of our candidates with the requisite skills for the particular job role that our industry partners are looking at providing, as well as the locations of the candidates’ homes and the office where they would work. Next, we facilitate multiple interactions between the companies and one (or more) of our candidates and observe how things are taking shape. If the company decides to hire our candidate(s), we conduct sensitization workshops with the help of our NGO partners for the employees who will interact with our candidates daily – and continue to be a support system for our candidates even when they start working.

What are your future plans?
Whether to cover a larger set of ‘disabilities’, enter other regions or organise skilling programs, the possibilities for Project Nishant are endless! We will create a pull factor for companies through branding and industry recognitions for our active partners, leverage social media, work with schools and the government. How about creating an ecosystem of knowledge sharing and social interaction on our platform? There is a lot we can do.
Every day, new ideas for promoting talent and sustainability are coming up! We are eager to explore self-employment opportunities for our candidates and are considering providing seed capital to at least one Nishant entrepreneur in 2022. We are also thinking about providing a scholarship to at least one Nishant candidate from a low-income background, in their quest to develop skills. We are excited to see what this year has in store for us!


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