I was busy,” Arnav Ghosh, 27, tells his mom with a sheepish grin. He is just back from work. He did not answer his mobile phone when his mother, Shashi Motilal, had called earlier in the day. He is part of the F&B team at the Lemon Tree hotel in Aerocity, Delhi. And he works hard: six days a week, nine hours a day.
At the hotel, his tirelessness is in full display. All the table mats have to be perfectly aligned, quarter plates neatly placed, cutlery counted, wiped and tidily laid out. Napkins need to be folded and stacked in the holder. Moving slowly but meticulously, Ghosh at work is a man in deep meditation. He’s almost possessed by work, as if nothing could come between him and his job — neither the din in the restaurant nor the bustle at a corner table. “He works harder and longer than all of us. And he loves doing it. You can’t make him miss his office, come rain or late night,” says his proud mom.
It wasn’t like this till 2012. Ghosh — the younger of two siblings — was born in 1990 in the US with Down syndrome. Life for his academic parents — his father is a professor at IIT-Delhi and his mother at Delhi University — changed forever. They returned to India but bringing up a special child in the country was not easy. Parents’ support groups helped.
So did special schools like Tamana in the capital? But when their child turned adult, the future looked bleak. Every family milestone made his parents anxious about how Arnav would deal with life. Be it his brother’s departure for college in the US or his wedding, or even a death in the family. “He doesn’t understand any of these things. How do you explain?”Asks his mother. Once, a worried Motilal wondered if Arnav could work at a photocopy shop just to keep him occupied.
Then, a chance trip to Chennai changed things. In the hotel that they were staying, two members of the housekeeping staff were speech- and hearing-impaired. “We were touched and relieved to see them at work. It gave us ideas,” says Motilal. The couple reached out to Lemon Tree Hotels in Delhi — and doors opened. Initially, Ghosh worked with the housekeeping team, mopping the floor and cleaning rooms. Says Motilal: “I began sweeping and mopping at home, too, to make Arnav feel good about his duties.
Today, it is more than just a job for him and his family. It has boosted his confidence and self-esteem. It occupies his days purposefully and positively. It has also brought a sense of normality to the family.
“This is not charity but a business decision for us. My guests love it,” says Patu Keswani, founder, Lemon Tree Hotels, about employing persons with disabilities (PwD). In their surveys many repeat customers point out, unprompted, that Lemon Tree’s inclusive hiring was a big draw for them. Of the 4,000-plus staff at Lemon Tree Hotels, close to 1,000 are physically, intellectually or educationally (Class IX or less) challenged. With these employees, the hotel has experienced less attrition and better productivity (thanks to their enthusiasm and a sense of gratitude).
Close to 80% of the staff at Lemon Tree’s newly opened property in Sector 60, Gurgaon, are people with disabilities. Aradhana Lal, vice-president (sustainability), says Lemon Tree will hire more people with disabilities and double their strength to over 40% of the staff by 2025. “This makes enormous business sense to us,” she says.
Viklang to Divyang:
Valuing anything amid its abundance is never easy. So is it with people in India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion and workforce of 470 million-plus. One segment, the PwDs, felt it more than anyone, denied as they were access and opportunities. According to Census 2011, India has 2.68 crore people with disabilities. But even conservative global estimates by the World Bank and the World Health Organisation put it upwards of 7 crore (the thumb rule is 10% of any country’s population is PWD).
Pitied and sympathised, PwDs in India have lived life on the margins. Poor access to public spaces and educational institutions is a recurring theme. The job market dynamics do not help either. Jobless economic growth and supply outpacing demand (about a million new workers join the workforce every month) coupled with an archaic social construct mean PwDs are ignored by the society and economy.
Now a happy confluence of factors is changing the status quo. Conscious capitalism is pushing companies to look at society as an important stakeholder. Ethical business is in. Products and services with a streak of social good find favour among investors and consumers. Technology, too, is turning enabler, limiting handicaps that PwDs grapple with.
Politically, things could not be better. In 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the nation in his Mann Ki Baat to call PwDs divyang (people with extraordinary capabilities)rather than viklang (handicapped), many saw it as just smart wordplay. Cynics called it a political gimmick. But beyond rhetoric, the Modi government is nudging India to mainstream PwDs.
The passage of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act late last year — which seeks to protect PwDs from discrimination and ensures equality of opportunity — is just one of the many steps that the government has taken in that direction. Now, India Inc is discovering good business reasons to embrace PwDs.
Ask Meera Shenoy, founder of Youth4Jobs, a company that skills and helps PwDs find jobs. “Five years back, it was hard. Employers were apprehensive. Things are changing now,” she says. Working with over 500 companies, her NGO has trained and deployed over 11,000 workers through 21 centres across India. More importantly, it stayed the course to pry open new roles like cashiering in retailing (Landmark Group) and shop floor work in automotives (Valeo) for PwDs. Valeo’s successful pilot with the speech- and hearingimpaired on the shop floor has inspired 12 other automotive firms like Caterpillar, Gabriel and India Pistons to explore hiring PwDs. That the government reimburses employers’ provident fund (PF) and employees’ state insurance (ESI) contribution for PwDs surely should help.
For Yum! Brands, which own food labels such as KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, the journey began on a very different note over a decade ago. A former CEO of Yum! India had gone to a store where speech- and hearingimpaired staff worked. As he was about to leave, one of them held his hand tightly, expressing gratitude in such a heartwarming way that the CEO was moved. He vowed to make inclusive hiring a part of the group’s recruitment strategy. Today, as a rule, for every 15 outlets that KFC opens one of them is managed by PwDs, who make up 70% of the staff there. Of the 350-plus KFC outlets in India, 20 are managed by PwDs, with their head count now touching 400. “PwDs deliver better productivity. But that’s not the reason why we do it. We believe in doing business with a big heart,” says Aman Lal, chief people officer, KFC India.
For BPO firm Aegis, workforce diversity is an important business pillar. “Being inclusive also helps to cater better to our customers’ diverse needs,” says SM Gupta, global chief people officer, Aegis. Of the 45,000 staff globally (28,000 in India), they have over 700 persons with disabilities — from locomotors handicaps and visual impairment to epilepsy and albinism. In the BPO sector where staff attrition can be upwards of 50%, PwD attrition is half the industry average. “Initially we were apprehensive but our clients appreciate our effort and are happy about it,” says Gupta.
The Landmark Group, with retail brands like Lifestyle, has over 20,000 employees of whom 500 are PwDs. The retailer recently piloted cashiering jobs for the speech- and hearing-impaired. “Our customers are instantly more empathetic when they get to know that the cashier is a PwD,” says B Venkataramana, group head (HR & training), Landmark Group. Today the group has over 70 cashiers who are PwDs.
Hiring PwDs is at the core of Prashant Issar’s business strategy. Inspired by a bistro in Toronto called Signs, he cofounded Mirchi and Mime (M&M) in Mumbai’s northeastern neighbourhood of Powai in 2015. Working in London, Issar wanted to come back not just to make money but also to give back. Of M&M’s 50-odd staff, half are PwDs (speech- and hearing-impaired).
“All the challenges we faced in our journey had more to do with people with abilities than those with disabilities,” says Issar. His PwD staffs have consistently outperformed their peers. Their attention to detail, deeper commitment levels, superior customer care, higher learnability — they tend not to repeat mistakes — and lower attrition levels are a big plus. In the restaurant business, attrition hovers around 70%. For M&M, whose front desk is staffed mostly by PwDs, it is under 5%, but at the back end, where they hire general staff, the attrition soars to industry levels, of 50-70%. An upbeat Issar now plans to open 21 outlets by 2021, in which close to half of the staff will be PwDs.
Shivansh Kumar, cofounder of Cafe Echoes, has also employed hearing- and speechimpaired. Every table has a switch to call waiters armed with a notepad and pen for guests to put down what they need. The cafe chain has three outlets, two in Delhi and one in Bengaluru, with 80 staff members of whom 20 are PwDs. Most cafes break even in 18-21 months and Kumar claims they broke even in 12 months, with PwDs providing cost efficiencies.
“For us, it was a dream come true,” says Neera Chawla, director, Muskaan, an NGO that has worked with over 500 people with intellectual disability, including Down syndrome. Having worked in the space for over two decades, Muskaan grappled with productively engaging adult PwDs. For long,they set up their own work centres to offer vocational training and keep them engaged.
Lemon Tree’s PwD initiative five years back was a refreshing change. New doors are now opening. Chawla says they are now working with other chains like Country Inn, Sheraton, Radisson and also other firms like HPCL and Richard Ellis. Muskaan has placed over 30 PwDs in three years. “As they are otherwise looked down upon by society, working outside in the normal world boosts their personality. It helps them absorb social skills, get better behaviourally and is a big relief for the family too,” says Chawla.
Making it Work Hiring and mainstreaming PwDs call for deep commitment. “Don’t leave it to HR. It has to be driven by the CEO,” says Keswani of Lemon Tree. And it must make business sense. “Charity is not always sustainable and scaleable,” he says. The biggest hurdle is to sensitise the workforce. “Oh god, we have to now work more,” was the first reaction when Keswani rolled out the initiative. It took them close to four years to tackle that mindset.
It’s a challenge that most employers face. Employers like Lemon Tree and M&M have made it mandatory for all the managers to get trained in sign language. Sensitisation training too is highly recommended. Aegis started a gup-shup club to integrate and mainstream PwDs. Job mapping is another critical aspect.
Employers must find roles where disability is irrelevant or explore technology options that make it irrelevant. For example, Lemon Tree figured that people with Down syndrome are very good at laying tables. Now they are paired with the able-bodied to deliver world-class service. Sampath of Valeo hired PwDs for packing and stacking of products, installing all the necessary safety mechanisms. A monotonous job often meant packaging errors, high staff attrition and absenteeism. With the speech and hearing impaired staff, Valeo has experienced a sharp surge (43%) in productivity, less packaging errors, minimal attrition and absenteeism at its Chennai factory. Valeo is now hiring PwDs at its Pune factory.
Reconfiguring the workplace is important. At KFC, a red light has replaced the buzzer that indicates the chicken is done. Even the procedure to take orders has been adapted. KFC has also set up a Yum Academy, which trains PwDs who can then be hired by the industry. At Aegis, the entire corporate office —from toilets to entrance to cafeteria — has been made PwD-friendly.
An entire ecosystem of NGOs and trainers has emerged to hand-hold corporates. Gupta at Aegis works with over 70 NGOs to recruit, train PwDs and sensitise their own staff. Keswani seeks trainers from over 20 NGOs to assist Lemon Tree in training PwDs and also its own staff in skills like sign language. Shenoy has proactively worked with the corporate sector to find process and technological solutions to enable PwD-hiring. It conducts workshops for CEOs, VPs and supervisors to sensitise them. Many PwDs come from weak economic backgrounds with low literacy levels.
NGOs help equip them with required skills — from English-speaking training modules to soft skills and even how to dress. This journey is not without challenges. The biggest comes from PwD’s own families. Protective families, concerned about their safety, hesitate to send them outside and expose them to the cut-throat corporate world. Commuting for most, especially late in the evening, can be a challenge with poor public transport and expensive private transport.
PwDs require sensitive handling. “Even while giving employee feedback they are sensitive about the employee’s mental state. And they have beautifully modified roles when needed,” says Sangita Mehta, mother of Aditya Mehta who is autistic and part of the housekeeping team at Lemon Tree. The biggest challenge, though, is career pathing, which requires thought and attention.
If done well, the difficult journey is worth the effort. “When Aditya throws a tantrum about his work, we say, okay, don’t go, resign. He instantly changes his tune. He doesn’t want to resign. He loves his job. He loves going to Lemon Tree,” laughs his mom Sangita. Now, such happiness and commitment is often rare to find in the most able of bodies.