If you want to take a real hard look at the astounding skill-sets of the differently-abled, visit ‘Cafe in the Dark’ —an edutainment (education and entertainment) zone run by Ahmedabad-based social start-up DialogueMakers, where programmes are conducted in pitch darkness by the visually impaired. Started in November 2014, DialogueMakers has a core team of 10 people which includes four totally visually impaired trainers and three who are partially visually impaired. Founded by Pooja Somaiya and Mit Somaiya, the start-up’s basic philosophy stems from a desire to have successful business models wherein at least 85% of the people employed are differently-abled.
The programmes are open for corporate employees as well as groups of friends or family members. “We felt that most experiences are too passive. Even training programme at corporate houses involve presentations, videos and small activities,” says Mit Somaiya, co-founder and chief executive officer, DialogueMakers. The objective, therefore, was to recreate the professional lives of individuals in an environment where everybody is at the same level in terms of their abilities. “We give them activities and puzzles to solve in the dark. Vision is the most important sensory perception for humans and here everybody is facing the same challenges,” he explains.
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Such activities allow for communication in a more precise manner, and helps develop skills like discipline, leadership and team spirit. A few companies also opt for debriefing sessions for employees attending the programmes, wherein the trainers speak to them about the challenges they faced whilst performing in the darkness. “The idea is to work with the marginalised sections of the society, with people who are shunned or excluded from work. We would like to provide these people with skills and make them employable,” he adds.
DialogueMakers has held programmes for employees from Indian Oil Corporation, Sterling Hospital, Bank of Baroda, Arvind and Amway, among others. It also conducts sessions for children’s birthday parties and recently held a programme at Poddar International School, which saw visually-challenged children from the Andh Kanya Prakash Gruh act as trainers.
As young social entrepreneurs, the two founders have been involved with other start-ups earlier as well. Mit Somaiya had helped set up a vocational educational centre for training cooks, drivers, maids and security guards in Tier 2 and 3 cities. A dentist by profession, Pooja Somaiya has earlier worked with a Mumbai-based start-up in bringing medical treatment to rural areas.
Incubated at MICA and bootstrapped since its inception, DialogueMakers was set up with R15 lakh of funding. The startup is now looking for funding of R40 lakh to open a ‘Mind Cafe’ in Ahmedabad by December. Speaking about the new cafe, Somaiya elaborates, “Customers will be given noise-cancellation headphones, they will not be allowed to speak inside the cafe. The servers will be deaf and mute, and people will eat in perfect silence. Our first location, “Cafe in the Dark” is for families to eat in pitch darkness. There are activities within such groups as well, where people will have to guess the food they are eating.”
In early 2015, DialogueMakers partnered with “Dialogues in the Dark”, a Germany-based awareness-raising social business and franchise, where visitors are led by blind guides through different settings in absolute darkness. It has also tied up with ‘Chatur Chidiyaa’, another Ahmedabad-based start-up that sells products made by mentally challenged children. These souvenirs are handed out to individuals attending DialogueMakers’ programmes.
Along with the cafes, the duo also plans to set up different centres in and around Gujarat. By next year, the start-up is expected to have nine venues, of which three will be in Ahmedabad. Somaiya elaborates, “About 80 to 100 people can be employed at such centres in Ahmedabad, and we want to employ people who are physically impaired.”
The founders are also working on bringing in newer technology. “We are coming up with Virtual Reality (VR) technology, getting the devices ready and seeing how they can be integrated with social elements,” Somaiya concludes.