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15 Jun, 2011

The Thrill of Learning a New Language — Sign Language

Niranjan Khatri

by Niranjan Khatri, General Manager, Welcomenviron Initiatives,

Email: NIRANJAN.KHATRI@itchotels.in

When people migrate, they embark on a journey of hope and uncertainty within or across the border. Similarly, from a management perspective, the initiative of employing people with disabilities evoked feelings of hope and uncertainty. When we started our journey in 2005, we knew that we are entering a domain which is unfamiliar to the industry and not popular from the current management education stand point. However, ITC Hotels, by virtue of its past experience sensed that there was opportunity in this space.

Somebody rightly said that nature gives us the nut, but does not break it for us. We embarked on the journey of trying to break a conventional mind set, in order to try and empathize with people with disabilities (PWD).

Given the stigma associated with this sector, stereotyping and our lack of knowledge, we decided to sensitize our associates across the chain about our intent to try and mainstream working with PWDs. The logic of this approach was to ensure that people with disabilities were treated with respect and dignity, without being insensitive to their needs.

It is an established practice that when organizations undertake a new initiative, a pilot project is initiated, to glean from the success or failures of such projects and to help the organization use these insights across the organization.

New Software Called Jaws

While sensitizing people on this new initiative, there was an effort to learn how NGOs have productively trained and employed PWDs. To that end, we visited NGOs in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad who have employed visually impaired persons on computers with a software called Jaws, that was not known to us at that time.

We now know that there is a free version of Jaws, as it is otherwise expensive for a large number of families. We saw visually impaired person working on lathes, weaving and handling telephone calls in a call centre. The latter experience was an eye opener and at the concerned BPO, the visually impaired person’s productivity was better than that of the abled person as per the company’s own admission.

With the knowledge gleaned through the combined exercise of self learning and observation, we employed a girl with cerebral palsy in Welcomhotel Rajputana to handle the linen room operations. The linen room assistant’s job is to give clean uniforms to all the associates. After a month, the hotel observed that the girl was working well and there was no dissonance in the operation.

On the contrary, with an earlier abled linen keeper there was a tendency of many associates to put pressure to give uniforms quickly and sometimes had the tendency to become abrasive in their behaviour. While dealing with the newcomer however, the very same people were polite and disciplined in their interaction. The learning from this experience was that the empathy embodied in the hotel trade towards guests, started flowing to the PWD as well.

Based on the above experience, we engaged a mobility impaired girl who was articulate in her communication and we decided to place her in the Telephone Department. Later, we realized that she could not be positioned there as there were 10-15 steps leading to the department and it was therefore not accessible.

As hoteliers, we are constantly thinking on our feet and we quickly changed plans by placing her in the Engineering Control room. The reason was that this department was in line with the staff entrance, cafeteria and rest room and a mobility impaired person could move around independently, again reinforcing her sense of dignity.

Respect for Dignity

It is imperative to remember that every person has his/her own dignity and the same must be respected. The above experiment made us realize that hotels are not barrier free and we need to make our hotels PWD friendly since most of our hotels are 25 – 30 years old. Such issues were not taken into account in the formative years of our hotel chain.

We conducted an access audit with the help of a professional auditor, who is mobility impaired herself and we reduced the physical barrier in our existing hotels by approximately 85%. We could not attain 100% for the simple reason that we could not break the pillars or some specific architectural features to make it barrier free.

However, with this insight, we decided that all our future hotels are going to be universally designed and the ITC Royal Gardenia is the first hotel in the country to be a barrier free hotel. The hotel received the NCPEDP award for this unique distinction in 2010.

With the confidence that we derived from this small experience in the north, we gravitated towards our southern hotels. In ITC Windsor in Bengaluru, the Training Manager was taken to see a few NGOs dealing with disabilities and it was an eye opener for him to see innovative ways of employing people with disabilities. In ITC Windsor we interviewed 2 visually impaired boys for laundry a job. At this juncture, there was a lot of hesitation from the hotel which is natural when you try and do anything new, but the key attribute amongst our associates is the quest to try and learn in spite of doubts and concerns.

The 2 visually impaired boys were chosen for working in the laundry department. To make the initiative successful, we took the help of the National Association for the Blind, and the boys were taught how to navigate in the hotel: entering the hotel, finding their way to the cafeteria, rest room, the work place and how to work safely in the operating area, because we give paramount importance to safety.

A buddy system was created to help these two boys work in specific aspects of laundry operations i.e, each visually impaired person was paired with an abled person. After a month, the Housekeeper discovered that these boys productivity was more than the abled persons. This insight led to increasing the number from 2 to 27 in a span of 6 months.

One hearing and speech impaired boy was engaged in the room reservations department. In that time period, the hotel was very busy and the three girls in the reservation department were busy taking bookings but were not able to upload it into the computer. There was a resulting backlog that led to under-utilization in optimizing the entire capacity of rooms in the hotel.

The hearing and speech impaired person uploaded the information on the computer so that the Front Office Manager (FOM) could have the latest room count at his finger tips. This led to a corresponding increase in revenue. This boy has now been promoted and moved to the F&B banquet department.

Basic Sign Language Classes

It is important to state here that during the process of hiring people with a hearing/speech impairment, we conducted basic sign language classes for our associates to break the communication barrier. I now see abled people talking to each other using sign language and when I ask them why, they say ‘Why waste your breath, Sir’.

At this point, it is also important to state that we started the initiative by developing a matrix disability table according to certain categories, of where PWDs could work safely and efficiently, without creating any service dissonance. We also made a conscious decision that we would not sympathize with PWDs we would only empathize. The uniqueness of empathy is that it leads to problem solving and effective solution management. With sympathy, only unproductive crocodile tears are shed.

ITC Hotels became the incubator of many ideas in different kinds of disabilities and different kinds of jobs. Visually impaired boys were employed in kitchen stewarding where they wipe the knives, forks and plates. The General Manager of the hotel became then replaced his abled office assistant who used to do the sundry work with a speech/hearing impaired person. Many visitors who came to see the General Manager got a flavor of simple sign languages for ordering tea/coffee.

The message gradually spread to other hotels – ITC Grand Central engaged 2 visually impaired pianists, WelcomHotel Park Sheraton in Chennai similarly engaged a visually impaired violinist. Similar models have been applied in ITC Maurya, ITC Maratha and ITC Sonar and even in smaller locations like WelcomHotel Grand Bay.

Very interesting changes have begun to take place amongst our associates and with our guests. I have heard sound bytes from our associates, saying, “We may be physically fit but we are not working as efficiently as people with disabilities”. A guest commented that they were pleasantly surprised to see that we had employed a hearing/speech impaired person to a job to smile and open the door. Another feedback from a guest was also heartening, “I had tears in my eyes when I saw this person working with a great smile inspite of his disability.”

We moved to the ITC Green Centre in 2005 and it is the world’s 1st largest platinum rated building. By design intent, we have reduced our energy consumption by 40% and the whole building is awash with day light. If the building was constructed with a business as usual approach, we would be consuming 6,35,000 units of energy per annum. However, because of a simple decision to use day ight, we are using 13,500 units of energy for lighting alone, a huge saving in emission. A right step in the direction of working towards low carbon economy a subject on the national agenda.

The Connection

The question that arises now is what is the connection between disability and the environment? The kind of scenario projected by Climatologists on the weather front is that we will have more challenges, with people being disabled on account of natural calamities. The learning derived in employing people with disabilities will help us to ensure the rehabilitation of a large number of people in the near future.

Having employed PWDs across the chain, we reached a plateau and thereafter we decided to develop an entrepreneurship module to employ people with disabilities. Hoteliers, by virtue of their business are well connected with different stake holders. Therefore, we leveraged this natural advantage and networked with 10 BPOs in the NCR region and arranged a rent free space in the cafeteria of BPO’s in a 6’x 6′ size for PWDs to operate independently. These kiosks are stocked with biscuits, chips and other sundry items normally purchased by employees. A needs assessment is done by the PWD in conjunction with the administration of the BPO outfit.

The key objective of this partnership was to illustrate that when the industry works in a symbiotic relationship, solutions for intractable problems can be found. The advantage of this initiative was as follows: 1. It provided an opportunity for a PWD to demonstrate that he or she can be independent and self employed with a little help from all stakeholders and not be a burden on their family; 2. The BPO cafeteria is operational 24×7 and a ready market was already available, without a PWD making the effort to market products on their own; 3. The most important reason is to sensitize lay persons who come in contact with a PWD not to sympathize but to respect their abilities and become empowered with this new knowledge of engaging with them innovatively. This initiative is an example of extreme affirmative action through partnership with other corporates.

Over a period of time we discovered that PWDs in rural India are completely neglected and therefore we thought of home based livelihoods for them. In 1947, when well-off families came from Pakistan to India as refugees, they were penniless and they started their life by making papad, pickle and other sundry items and eked out a living by selling their products and reconstructing their financially disabled lives.

Same Principles Apply

We have tried to apply the same principles to sensitize the parents of PWDs to create entrepreneurship opportunities for their children, keeping their physical reality in mind. The National Association of the Blind was introduced to International Development Enterprise. The latter NGO makes a low cost drip irrigation system for marginalized farmers. An attempt was made to train the blind girls at NAB to make drip irrigation kits, however due to various reasons the pilot did not succeed. Therefore, we are creating pilots for PWDs to work in the agarbatti making (incense sticks) industry. In this business, PWDs can easily work as their work processes are “SAFE”.

The intent of our objective was to find as many opportunities as possible for engaging the disability sector. We assisted the CII to do job mapping and share the information with various sectors so that the new catchment area is engaged with for providing manpower to the industry, which is suffering with a shortage of skilled labor and a high attrition rate.

Many of our hotels have conducted training programmes for HR Managers of several other companies to show case the methodology of how to employ PWDs. The thought process behind this move was to scale up the employment of PWDs in large numbers in the industry, which has a dismal record of employing only 0.05 % PWDs by private industry.

ITC Hotels is the first organization to write a small book on how to employ PWDs for the rest of the industry. Today many hotel chains and restaurants have started employing people with disabilities by showcasing to the world that the industry believes in inclusive growth.