Kerala’s Sargasheshi breaks stereotypes by employing women with Down syndrome

Sargasheshi handicraft outlet in Kozhikode promotes inclusivity by providing job opportunities to women with Down syndrome. Jointly set up by ULCCS and DOTS, it is India's first-of-its-kind social venture focusing on mainstreaming women with the condition

Chandhini R
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employees at Sargasheshi

The staff at Sargasheshi, Kozhikode

Every morning, 26-year-old Anjana proudly puts on her sales representative badge and steps into the vibrant world of Sargasheshi Handicraft outlet with her infectious smile to kick start another day at work. 

Anjana is not just another employee supporting her family with her salary. She was born with Down syndrome, a medical condition in which a baby is born with an extra chromosome that delays mental and physical development and increases the risk for health problems.

"Today, I have a job and I get a monthly salary. I feel proud to be able to support my family financially. This opportunity gives me confidence and the ability to overcome hurdles," says Anjana with a sense of accomplishment.

In Kerala’s Kozhikode, a unique initiative is redefining the lives of women with Down syndrome. The Uralungal Labour Contract Co-operative Society (ULCCS) foundation and Down Syndrome Trust (DOST), Kozhikode, have jointly set up India's first-of-its-kind social venture – a retail store dedicated to providing job opportunities to resilient women born with Down syndrome, like Anjana.

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The visionary behind this initiative

Sargasheshi was established in 2021. The project is the brainchild of Dr MK Jayaraj, director of ULCCS and former director of the State Institute of Mentally Challenged. In 2013, he was appointed to the one-man commission by the Government of Kerala to take up a study on intellectually challenged individuals. After the report was completed in three months, the state government approved 137 out of its 168 recommendations.

On what prompted him to come up with the idea of a social venture, Jayaraj says, "Having worked in this field for more than three decades, I have observed the lack of job opportunities for people with Down syndrome. When it is a woman, it becomes a double struggle. There's also a notion that women with such conditions are a burden,” he says.

“We understood that financial independence was necessary to break this notion and promote inclusivity. Hence, we came up with the idea to start an inclusive workplace, a retail store, to provide employment exclusively to women with Down syndrome, Jayaraj says."

The outlet sells products handcrafted by adults with intellectual challenges and artisans from Sargaalaya Kerala Arts & Crafts Village. 

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Training for transformation 

Currently, Anjali, Anjana, Anushree and Teena Mariyam Thomas take care of all the operations at Sargasheshi. All four of them were provided special training by ULCCS in association with DOTS. 

Between 2017 and 2018, when Jayaraj and his team were mulling over ways to empower people with Down syndrome, they did not have any model to follow. So they created a curriculum, enrolled around 50 adults with intellectual challenges, and provided them with free tailored training based on individual learning capacities and IQ.

Dr mk jayaraj
Dr M K Jayaraj, Director of ULCCS

 Six experienced special instructors conducted the sessions. Over the years, around 105 students have been successfully employed in various sectors. The organisation has developed an association with 19 employers, where these students are placed after training.

"People with intellectual challenges and Down Syndrome can be trained to do any non-technical job that is predominantly repetitive."

So in the training programme, they are taught the basic practices like developing attention span, regularity and punctuality. "There is also training to do simple chores like cleaning, arranging and assisting other individuals,” Jayaraj says. 

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“We also provide on-the-job training for them to better understand the real-time working space, develop peer interaction and eventually integrate fully with the mainstream. Our students are working in hospitals, labs, shopping malls and retail stores. From housekeeping, and gardening to working as sales staff, the organisation has equipped its students to take up jobs and earn a living with dignity," he adds. 

From left: Anjali showcasing newly arrived articles; Anjana and Teena at work; Anushree arranging articles 

Jayaraj believes that the success of this project is reflected in the positive feedback they receive from employers about their students, many of whom have become breadwinners for their families. If they face any problem, the foundation actively intervenes to address the concerns and ensure the safety of the individuals. 

A supportive work environment

The store also has a dedicated special instructor, Lalitha, on duty to assist the women staff whenever they require any help. 

"With extensive training, all four of them are successfully running the shop on their own. From opening the store in the morning to arranging the articles on respective shelves, ensuring cleanliness and keeping a tab on the stock,” Lalitha says. 

“In fact, they learn about each product and explain its features to customers. Since there isn’t any sales target, they are not pressured to persuade the customers. They genuinely help out the customers with their requirements and give the correct information about the products. I step in for billing-related support," Lalitha adds.

lalitha with teena
Special instructor Lalitha with staff Teena. Pic: Sargasheshi

Financial sustainability and impact

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jayaraj says Sargasheshi has managed to stay afloat. The initiative began with very modest gains and recently achieved an impressive monthly revenue of Rs1,40,000. The entire profit is reinvested for the welfare of the women staff, who receive a monthly salary of Rs6000 along with PF, allowances, and bonuses.

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"A lot of people are learning about this outlet through social media and the number of patrons is gradually increasing. Sargasheshi today stands as an example of how initiatives to support people with Down syndrome can make their lives better and also bring about a holistic attitudinal change in society," Jayaraj adds. 

Anjana, echoing the sentiments of her peers, finds joy in coming to work every day. She enthusiastically explains the variety of products available at the store. "We have decorative items, traditional games, gifting articles and many more. I enjoy interacting with the customers and guiding them through selecting the products,” she says. 

“The training provided by ULCCS and DOST has been immensely helpful. I was previously working in Malabar Hospital in the laundry division. When Sargasheshi was started, I moved here. This place feels like my own and I look forward to coming to work every day," Anjana says with a smile.

(Chandhini R is a Kerala-based journalist specialising in human interest, entertainment, and art and culture stories)

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