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Hospitality sector a level playing field for differently-abled

Now, a number of differently-abled people work as waitresses, housekeeping staff and musicians at 5-star hotels and coffee shops.

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Hospitality sector a level playing field for differently-abled
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For long, you could count the differently-abled at workplaces on your fingers and they were relegated to back-office operations. But, a silent and slow revolution has been sweeping across the hospitality sector. Shabana Ansari finds out that the step-motherly treatment is a thing of the past. Now, a number of them work as waitresses, housekeeping staff and musicians at 5-star hotels and coffee shops.

When you place an order at the Costa Coffee outlet in Pali Naka, Pooja Suryawanshi takes it down with a smile and a nod. A few tables away, Hyder Ali is busy clearing tables and serving customers. You realise that they both can’t hear and speak only when you see them communicate in sign language with Nafisa Shaikh, who is making coffee behind the counter.

Nearly 70% of the staff at this outlet is hearing- and speech-impaired. And, verbal conversation here happens only between guests at the tables, while the employees go about doing their job without exchanging a single word with each other.

“Even our regular employees undergo training in sign language to ensure better coordination with our special staff,” says Santhosh Unni, CEO of Costa Coffee India.

Slowly, but surely, the hospitality sector is opening up its doors to the differently-abled. And, the good news is that they are not relegated to back-office operations; instead, they are placed at positions where they can interact with customers.

Costa Coffee has more than 30 differently-abled employees across its 20 outlets in Mumbai. “Currently, 15% of our staff is differently-abled and we plan to significantly increase the intake soon,” adds Unni.

Other eateries that have implemented similar schemes include KFC and Barista, while five-star hotels, like the ITC group, have consistently provided equal job opportunities to the differently-abled.

A 5-star treatment
At the ITC Maratha in Andheri, mobility-impaired Buddhiram Murmu mans the reservations desk, while speech- and hearing-impaired Carlton Misquitta maintains office and attendance records. In the kitchen, hearing- and speech-impaired chef Shakir Mansoori is busy dishing out delicacies. 

A few years ago, the ITC group started collaborating with NGOs working with the differently-abled and came up with an initiative for their mainstream inclusion.

Today, there are more than 300 special people among the 4,500-odd employees of the 14 ITC hotels across India. They include visually-challenged, hearing- and speech-impaired, and physically-challenged people working as waiters, technicians, housekeeping staff, masseurs, beauticians, and even musicians.

“For something like this to succeed, we need to realise that the differently-abled don’t need sympathy, but empathy,” says Niranjan Khatri, general manager of ITC’s social arm.

He adds that the process was not an easy one since there were a lot of hurdles along the way.

“The regular staff had to be sensitised and at the same time, we had to ensure that the special employees were not mollycoddled,” Khatri says, adding that they identify the strengths and qualifications of the differently-abled and match them with the relevant jobs.

Barrier-free workplace
Recruiters and activists working with the differently-abled insist that many of them suffer from low esteem and self-doubt after having faced rejection most of their lives. 

“Productivity may suffer in the initial days, but after they get the hang of things, the differently-abled are a pleasure to work with. They are dedicated, sincere and unlikely to get distracted,” says Khatri, adding that the attrition rate among special employees is merely 2% as compared to 30% among the regular staff. 

However, just hiring and training the special staff is not enough. Workplaces also need to be barrier-free and disabled-friendly. “Once we started working with the physically-challenged, we realised that all our hotels were not disabled-friendly. Since they had been constructed 25-30 years ago, no one had foreseen the inclusion of the differently-abled in the workforce,” says Khatri.

In the last few years, ITC has managed to eliminate 85% of the physical barriers in its hotels and has created easier ramp access for the physically-challenged. The rest could not be achieved since breaking down existing structures is not feasible. “However, all our future hotels will be barrier-free and disabled-friendly,” he says, adding that creating a barrier-free ambience benefits not just their special employees, but also their differently-abled guests.

Miles to go
While stories of inclusion are heartwarming, it’s undeniable that a majority of India’s differently-abled continue to be neglected in the public and private sectors.

A World Bank report, People with Disabilities in India: From Commitments to Outcomes, estimates that there are more than 90 million physically-challenged people across India. And, most of them don’t have access to education or employment.

The report maintains that it is not possible for the public sector to “do it all” and reveals that the private sector has been negligent. In the last decade, people with disability made up only 0.3% of the workforce at large private firms.

At multi-national companies, the situation is far worse - with only 0.05% of the workforce constituting people with disability, the report indicates.

Meanwhile, another report by the ILO Global Business and Disability Network says even government jobs are not filled by the differently-abled. According to the report, the 3% reservation as per the Disability Act of 1995 is not being met. “Till November 2010, only 1,017 vacancies out of 7,628 backlog vacancies had been filled up by the government,” the report adds.

A step towards the bigger goal
But, things may change if corporate India takes steps towards employing more differently-abled people.

Khatri says a beginning has been made, but a lot still needs to be done. “Disability is not the issue here but lack of education and awareness is,” he says. He points out that parents, teachers and NGOs working for people with special needs should set the bar high.

“We need to stop treating the differently-abled differently. Why restrict them to candle-making and packing jobs when they can be empowered through education and equal job opportunities?” he asks.

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