Fresh Lease for Hearing Impaired
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20 May 2011
By Vikas Kumar
New Delhi, India
With their commitment and skills, they are becoming employees of choice for a host of companies, from fast food chains to BPOs
The Costa Coffee outlet in South Delhi’s Green Park market is quieter than other cafés. Apart from the conversational murmur of guests, there’s little noise behind the counter. Shaan Ahamed, 23, and Preeti Bhot, 21, the two baristas on the morning shift, cheerfully take customer orders, make coffee, serve tables and everything else that comes with the job – all without a single word uttered between them. Both are deaf and the outlet is among the few ones in the Costa network where the entire team has been staffed with deaf workers (except for the shift manager and his assistant).
"When I came in I was afraid and shy of facing customers," says Ahamed, in sign language interpreted by his manager Debasis Das. "Now I am fine." The eldest child born to the family of a hardware goods distributor in Aligarh, Ahamed is fortunate to have found a means of living and a job he loves.
As India Inc discovers that deaf workers can, despite their disability, bring in unique skills and contribute meaningfully to jobs, youngsters like Ahamed not only have careers, they are actually in demand. From shopfloor workers to computer hardware and networking engineers and instore promoters in retail stores to security staff in 5-star hotels, the deaf have been finding employment with companies like Titan, IBM, MphasiS, Café Coffee Day, and the Taj Group of Hotels.
"Our experience has been that their other senses are very sharp. 90% of them have high commitment and surprisingly high energy levels. They are more loyal, genuine and want to do well in life," says Virendra Singh, director HR at RJ Corp, which represents KFC, Pizza Hut and Costa Coffee in India. Starting three years ago in Kolkata, the group now employs around 450 deaf people in KFC and Costa – 200 in Kolkata alone – sourcing them mainly from local NGOs Silence and Sarthak.
Singh says the target is to have at least two such people in each of its outlets. It’s not hard to see why. Store managers, though initially apprehensive, eventually find that their deaf reports bring unique traits that make life easier in the demanding environment of a cafe. "The first 1-3 months are awkward," says Das. Then it gets better. "They do not ask many questions. And once I ask them to do something I don’t have to repeat myself," he says. Café Coffee Day employs 90 deaf people and plans to add 30 during the current quarter according to Shyamala Deshpande, president HR at Café Coffee Day (CCD).
The Lemon Tree Hotel Company has been actively recruiting deaf employees for two years now. "This is a big alternate talent pool at a time when everybody is vying for the same set of people. Their attrition is in single digits compared with double digits for other employees," says Rahul Pandit, president and COO. After employing them as gardeners, tailors and laundry staff, it’s now trying deaf employees as waiters in restaurants in three hotels in Bangalore, Gurgaon and Hyderabad.
Lemon Tree now has around 75 deaf people currently among its 2,000-odd employees, and is targeting 10% of its workforce, or 500 employees with disability in the next three years. A host of NGOs and enabling organisations have been working to train and provide vocational and soft skills needed for employment. Among them, Noida Deaf Society (NDS), which has placed over 300 deaf people in jobs during the past four years, plans to connect another 100 with jobs this year.
"They’re great visual people, and are generally good at repetitive tasks," says its founder Ruma Roka. This makes them suited particularly for entry-level BPO/KPO jobs where attrition is very high. "(Hearing) people outgrow these jobs in six months. But the deaf thrive on it. This is indirectly yielding profits for companies," she says. With salaries of Rs 10-15,000 at the entry level, Roka says the highest salary paid has been Rs 17,000 a month.
Chennai-based v-shesh, which works in the domain of ‘livelihood services’ connects rural and disabled youth with jobs through associations with NGOs like the Deaf Enabled Foundation in Hyderabad. "They bring a lot of stability and growth. Their cognitive abilities are fine and they make things simpler," says v-shesh co-founder P Rajasekharan. For example, he says the deaf use a lot of SMS or mobile texting to communicate among themselves, share thoughts and jokes.
Arun Rao, executive director of The Deaf Way Foundation, who has been working with the deaf for the past two decades, says deaf people also learn differently from others. Since they cannot hear, observational learning is what works for them best. "We developed a buddy system where you learn from a person by copying the person. Seeing and demonstration becomes important," says Rao, who’s setting up an animation centre that will be run entirely with deaf people.
For the same reason they learn faster from other deaf people. "The deaf network is very well knit," says Roka. The smarter ones pick up skills faster and are identified as potential instructors for other deaf workers. It also makes sense for employers to hire them in pairs or groups. "If you hire only one it becomes very difficult to retain and upskill. But with peer and support group they tend to stay for long," says Meenu Bhambhani, global head of CSR at Bangalorebased IT and BPO services company MphasiS. This insight has been leveraged well by Mumbai-based Mirakle Couriers which has created a business with an all-deaf workforce of over 70 people.
MphasiS partners with NDS to train deaf youth in English literacy. Its own volunteers then take over, helping out with technical skills enabling them work in data entry and computer networking and hardware support jobs. It has 33 deaf people working across India with 20 more being trained at NDS.
While the ecosystem of skilling and placing deaf workers is beginning to take shape, there are concerns around sustaining this momentum. Education is the biggest stumbling block. "Deaf people are excluded from educational institutions. Their communication skills are very weak and vocabulary and grammar is not developed," says Bhambhani. NDS gets them well-versed in sign language before teaching functional English and soft skills required at work. Training could take anywhere between six and 18 months depending on the person, says Roka.
Then comes the part about selling the idea to HR and corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments. Roka recalls that in the beginning she had to convince companies to waive the standard norms on education degrees. For many others it continues to be part of their CSR initiatives. "Sensitisation of employers is still a long way to go. The charity model hasn’t gone away," says Rao.
However, even more challenging is building confidence among the employable deaf youth. Quite a few of the students at NDS come from underprivileged families in villages and towns across UP. They are socially deprived due to perceptions around their disability. "Parents often mistake them for being mentally challenged because they make weird noises," says Roka. Mental development takes a backseat as their understanding of the world remains stunted throughout their formative years.
The positive changes start showing once they begin to interact with other deaf youngsters. "Parents tell us they become calm after coming here. They also look at their deaf children in a new light as they start contributing to the family kitty."