By Jo Jacobius
Visual impairment often has a negative effect on an individual’s social and working life. However, the flip side of this coin is that out of disability a rather special ability can emerge.
Chanchal Ankush was aware from a young age of a strong and accurate sense of smell. “My family members would always wonder how I could guess smells correctly. Even my sisters got used to smelling things around at home because of me,” says the 28-year-old resident of Ulhasnagar in Mumbai, who is blind from birth.
One of six sisters, Chanchal was working as a tele-caller at National Association for the Blind in Mumbai (NAB) when she learnt about The College of Fragrance for the Visually Impaired (COFVI) in Mumbai. “Because of my strong sense of smell, I was interested in smelling different fragrances so I applied to the college,” she explains.
Until working with NAB, Chanchal had worked as a tele-caller in a telecommunication company, a teacher in a computer institute where she would teach sighted people some basics of computers, and she had also completed a course in computer hardware.
After gaining a degree from COFVI two years ago, she landed a job as a fragrance evaluator at the global fragrance house CPL Aromas, headquartered in the UK, which founded the unique Mumbai college in 2011. “The college has changed my life significantly. I now have independence and self-confidence. I feel I can do anything in this field without much support. It has given me a sense of purpose in life,” says Chanchal.
Chanchal has not decided yet if fragrance will be her career for life but says she is definitely having a good time working in fragrances now. On average, she completes five or six projects in a week. She works exactly like other normal sighted evaluators, checking what she describes as an “amazing selection of fragrances” for the projects CPL Aromas India is developing for its customers.
It is not just a question of pursuing an interesting job; Chanchal’s standard of living has risen since she has started working in the industry. She travels by herself to and from work with her bag, stick and tiffin box using local Mumbai trains and auto-rickshaws; her morning commute begins at 7.25 am and she reaches work in time for her 10 am shift.
Importantly, her confidence levels have increased enormously because of the skills she is employing and developing.
Perfumers work with a palette of some 300 fragrance materials but when asked to pick her favourite aroma, Chanchal is clear: “Basil is definitely my favourite smell. I love its herbal, green notes which give such freshness.”
Some years ago, Dr Garry Dix, a research scientist at CPL Aromas, set out to investigate the commonly held but unproven theory that sight loss could be associated with greater smell acuity. The result of the research, conducted in association with the Blind Persons’ Association (Mumbai) in India, was positive.
Dr Dix found that those who are blind or have a long-term visual impairment have a more powerful sense of smell than the rest of the population. “Results of this study showed that the blind and visually impaired group in India were two and a half times more likely to pass the industry standard smelling test as the normally-sighted control group,” writes Dr Dix.
The research conducted in India was repeated in the UK and results were even more positive – with subjects three and a half times more likely to smell accurately compared with sighted people. That’s when CPL Aromas, which is the leading fragrance-only fragrance house in the world, set up COFVI in India.
Courses at COFVI are free for those students who make it through the selection process. Student groups are small – 14 students in the first three years and 11 students currently. But the impact on the lives of those who graduate from the college can be enormous. The training covers areas such as raw material smelling and identification with product evaluation; the history of fragrance; technology training; skill in Braille; and personal development techniques.
Of the 14 graduates to date, in addition to Chanchal’s employment with CPL Aromas, others have gone to work elsewhere in the industry. “For employers and graduates, it is a ‘win-win’ situation,” says Dr Dix. “Fragrance training provides a credible career path for those who are visually impaired. Employers benefit from enhanced abilities of people with uniquely honed skills.”
The training demonstrates the ability of these individuals to undertake challenging tasks and so whatever they go on to do can prove to have a huge improvement in their prospects compared with their work chances beforehand, as well as helping social standing and self-respect.
“I hold no fear or hesitation to live my life despite my disability. I am more than enthusiastic to take life as it comes!” says Chanchal.
With inputs by Gauri Pawar of CPL Aromas, India. This article first appeared in SPC magazine, volume 92 number 1