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People with special needs are being hired in various jobs

India’s differently abled are finding their calling in diverse professions, that make use of their special skills

brunch Updated: Mar 26, 2016 22:46 IST
Special needs,Mirchi and Mime,Lemon Tree
At Mirchi and Mime restaurant in Powai, Mumbai, you can communicate with hearing-impaired servers through gestures

One smile at a time, things are changing in the world of business. India has 1.34 crore people with disabilities within the employable age of 15 to 59 years, but 99 lakh of them are marginal workers or unemployed.Today many companies have been consciously seeking out differently abled staff, hiring and training them for mainstream jobs. Along the way, they’re changing notions about diversity, inclusivity and what makes a good employee. Take a look.

A New Sign Of The Times

At Mirchi and Mime in Powai, forget about restaurant etiquette. Here, you have to gesture for your servers’ attention. The 27-member staff is hearing- and-speech-impaired. Prashant Issar and Anuj Shah who thought up the concept say they had been to Signs Restaurant in Toronto, Canada, which has only disabled staff, and wanted to introduce it in India.

But it was not easy to recruit differently abled staff. “Their parents said, ’If something happened to our children, what would happen to us?’” recalls Issar. “We had to counter it by asking, ’Well, what will happen to your children after you’re gone?’”

Issar and Shah learned sign language themselves, so they could communicate with the people they wanted to hire. They tied up with the Rochiram Thadani Institute, Dr Reddy’s Foundation and NASEOH, which trained the employees in life sciences, job readiness, simple English and hospitality services over eight weeks.

Three weeks of on-the-job training followed, plus work at catering colleges. And then the staff began their jobs.

The 27-member staff at Mirchi and Mime is hearing-and-speech-impaired. They were trained for over eight weeks in life sciences, job readiness, hospitality services and more.

Vishal NK, is one of them. A guest service associate at the restaurant, he dreams of becoming the restaurant’s manager one day. He’s got used to the work hours and hungry guests and is proud of being able to single-handedly clear a table of four to five guests at one go. “I also look a lot dapper now.”

Mirchi And Mime’s menu carries text as well as sign language. Customers can order their food with just two signs. “But we don’t want people to come here out of sympathy,” says Issar. “We keep telling ourselves that the food is the leader. Once you start eating the food, you forget about the concept. It has to be profitable or the cause wouldn’t make sense.”

Given that the restaurant’s attrition rate is only 4 per cent (the industry average is 60 per cent). It’s clearly working out well for the staff too.

Redefining Hospitality

Differently abled is not just politically correct jargon. That’s what the proprietors of the Lemon Tree Hotels chain realised when they began recruiting people with Down syndrome and hearing and speech impediments in 2007. They learned that differently abled genuinely indicates a new skill set.

Those with Down syndrome, for instance, are happier when they work together and interact with others, which makes them brilliant in the restaurants, says Aradhana Lal, vice president of sustainability initiatives at the company. Employees with speech and hearing impediments have the amazing ability to clean 19 rooms a day, as opposed to the 16 that non-disabled people can manage. That’s because no chit-chat and gossip gets in the way.

The chain, which owns or operates 27 hotels in 16 cities, started off with a simple idea: everyone must have access to employment. today, about 13 per cent of their employees are differently abled. Training comprises a 10-day programme called See, Smile, Greet, and the speech- and hearing-impaired are provided with sign language interpreters and videos to show them how to go about their jobs. Employees with Down syndrome, meanwhile, receive one hour of training in a workday, so that they experience no information overload.

At work, Down syndrome employees carry whistles to use when they feel overwhelmed, the hearing- and speech-impaired employees carry notepads and pens to communicate. They also display a card that states their disability so as to prevent misunderstandings with guests. “This way you are educating the guest about what’s happening so she or he is not dissatisfied,” says Lal.

At Lemon Tree, job profiles keep in mind that people with Down Syndrome are happier working with others

For employees the training and support from fellow staff is what keeps them motivated. Devinder Kumar who is orthopedically handicapped, handles the front desk and back-office operations of the Delhi branch. It’s a step up from his previous job at a call centre where he “never got a rise in position in spite working well” even as non-disabled employees kept getting promoted. At the hotel chain, he started off as a telephone operator in 2013, went on to win the company’s best employee award and now handles 11 departments. “I want to do an MBA in the future,” he says.

The hotel also gets non-profit agencies to educate other employees in interacting with the disabled. “We learned that when people with Down syndrome are tired, they become moody and their actions become jerky,” says Lal. “They would drop cutlery in the restaurants. So the managers let them sit for five minutes to get their energy back.”

Where it counts, however, they’re just like other staff. “If they haven’t done their job well, we don’t hesitate to let them know,” says Lal. “If you don’t, and you spoil them, it will be a mess and no longer a business model.”

Changing the tech code

Four years ago, IT firm Capgemini decided to recruit people with disabilities. “We are so insensitive as a country,” says Gayatri Ramamurthy, the company’s head of diversity and inclusion. “This is reflected even in our buildings. If there are 22 steps to get to the office, what is a wheelchair user expected to do?”

Capgemini has more than 200 employees with hearing, speech and visual impairment, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Their roles range from account processing, technology support and software development to support functions such as recruitment, consulting and some technologies.

But they are not recruited out of pity. “We employ them for their ability, not disability,” says Ramamurthy. “And the employees need to fit the job description for their roles. If an employee in the complaint and redressal department needs to talk with customers, then a speech- or hearing-impaired person wouldn’t fit the role.”

At the IT firm, Capgemini, inclusion is also cause for celebration

Hearing-impaired trainees are provided with sign-language interpreters for the first 15 days, to help them integrate with their teams, while their seniors and peers are sensitised and also given sign-language training to overcome communication barriers.

A theatre group also enacts scenarios with employees to see how they would deal with situations that may arise. “The IT sector mainly employs young people who don’t want gyaan from a leader who says, ’read this article on disability’,” explains Ramamurthy. “The theatre group is expensive, but effective.”

Capgemini has learned that the disabled work harder than most people. “They don’t want sympathy, but empathy,” says Ramamurthy. “They want to feel included. Three years into his job, a hearing-impaired man was made manager and now is responsible for a team. He’s super happy!”

Delivering A Revolution

Aspiring entrepreneur Dhruv Lakra always wanted to transform a social cause into a business opportunity. It took a bus ride for him to finally hit upon the idea. Watching a hearing-impaired passenger struggle to communicate with the conductor, the HR College and Oxford University graduate decided, on the spot, to “challenge preconceived notions about the way the disabled are hired”.

In 2010, he launched Mirakle Couriers, a business that required its employees to have more visual skills than verbal. “The hearing-impaired are extremely good at map-reading and remembering roads and buildings because they are so visually inclined,” says Lakra. Slowly, the business grew into two offices, one at Churchgate and one in Andheri.

Mirakle Couriers turned to NGOs to recruit its 70 employees, who deliver more than 65,000 shipments a month. Training is simple. “We ask beginners to shadow experienced employees to see the kind of work they do,” says Lakra. “We take them on board if they like and are comfortable with the work.” Today, the hearing-impaired are hired as delivery boys and entry staff.

So far, the business has received a mixed response. Lakra wishes more corporates would work with Mirakle. “Creating a social impact can be very satisfying, but when it comes to a commercial venture, you’re pitted against big companies. Profits matter too.”

But then, he seldom loses his staff to other companies, and sees more loyalty from his employees than most other employers get. “It’s actually an advantage for us in the longer run,” he says.

From HT Brunch, March 27, 2016

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First Published: Mar 26, 2016 21:50 IST