• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • Events
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
  • Editorial Calendar 19-20
BW Businessworld

Not A Smooth Ride

Photo Credit :

Until two years ago, life held little hope for 25-year-old Deepak Narang. An orphan who could neither speak nor hear, he barely managed to survive on the meagre sum that he received from bus drivers in return for cleaning their buses at the Anand Vihar bus depot in Delhi. Last year, Narang and four other people with disability (PWD) from Delhi became the first batch of such people to pass out from Jawed Habib Academy in Mumbai's Andheri, the school owned by the eponymous celebrity hair stylist.

Today, all five are employed at Jawed Habib's salons in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi at a fixed monthly salary of Rs 8,000.

Habib, founder and owner of Jawed Habib Hair & Beauty, says: "In October 2010, when people from Sarthak approached us for training these PWDs, we thought of giving it a try. To our surprise, they have been quick learners and some have the potential to become good hair stylists. This has encouraged us to take a second batch of PWDs for training in Delhi."

According to Jitender Aggarwal, founder of the Delhi-based Sarthak Education Trust, an organisation that works to secure employment for PWDs, Habib bore the entire cost of training the five, including their accommodation and food. Says Habib: "This is not charity or business or publicity, it is just one of the ways to help and try to bring smiles to the lives of a few."

But the experience of employing PWDs did not exactly leave Habib and his team smiling initially. An incident almost forced him to give up the idea: A PWD and his guardians raised a huge ruckus when he was not allowed to cut a customer's hair, and accused the organisation
of discrimination.   

"It was a crude learning experience. We committed two grave mistakes. We started with a salary which the PWDs never imagined they could make. The second mistake was hiding their weaknesses. These acted as a time bomb which, when it exploded, spoilt the image of the company," says Rohit Arora, executive director at Jawed Habib Hair & Beauty.

After the incident, the organisation decided to make its PWD employees aware of their weaknesses and limitations. It has also told them that not everyone can be a hair stylist and that they will be put in departments according to their aptitudes and not their wishes. "It was a sad episode. But one incident cannot make or break our decision to help PWDs," says Arora.

(Neelu Bhullar:BW Pic By Tribhuwan Sharma) (Patu Keswani: BW Archive)

Nellu Bhullar, associate professor at MDI Gurgaon, who works for the employment of PWDs, says, "PWDs can often get cynical. They don't understand that their behaviour can close the doors for many of their brothers and sisters. This attitude is the chief reason why companies are wary of hiring PWDs."

A manager at costa overcame his initial difficulty in working with PWDs by learning sign language
(BW Pic By Sanjay Sakaria)

So far, only about 100,000 PWDs have succeeded in obtaining employment in industry in India. While the total population of people with disability in the country is said to be close to 70 million, as per unofficial estimates, official estimates put the total at a far lower 20 million. About three-fourths of the PWD population lives in rural areas. According to the World Bank and the World Health Organisation, an estimated 15 per cent of the world's population or 1 billion people — based on 2010 population estimates — have some form of disability. Of these, 785 to 975 million are above 15 years of age. The seemingly smaller size of the PWD population in India in comparison to global estimates is due to the fact that many in the country hide the disabilities of their children; this phenomenon is mostly prevalent among the rural population. 

"The real number of PWDs in India can be anywhere between 10 and 12 per cent of the population," says Sarthak's Aggarwal, a dentist by profession until 2004, when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition which leads to permanent visual disability. He believes that employment is the key to the inclusion of PWDs in the mainstream. "What struck me was the way people treated me. They think if you can't see you can't work. The general feeling is if you are disabled, you are a burden on society," he says.

If getting a job is not easy for most disabled people, gaining acceptance in the larger society and at the workplace is an even bigger challenge. Take the case of Anurag Tripathi, 24, who works at the Gurgaon property of Lemon Tree Hotels, a mid-size hotel chain that has some 100 employees (4 per cent of its total workforce) who are hearing and speech impaired. By the end of 2013, the company plans to employ 400 PWDs — 10 per cent of its total workforce.

A year ago when Tripathi, who is speech and hearing impaired, joined the Gurgaon hotel's laundry department, his happiness at having found a job and an identity of his own soon turned into dismay when he saw his subordinates taking advantage of his disability and dumping their work on him. He remained unfazed and polite though, being used to such behaviour. In a couple of months, everything changed: his colleagues became receptive to him, his hard work was recognised, and he was promoted to the service department as guest service associate. "I felt bad, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity. The job has made me independent and I am not dependent on my family," he says of his experience, using sign language. Today, he is the face of the company at its Gurgaon property, receiving and assisting guests at the front office.

Society's attitude towards disability comes out starkly in the case of Ramaswamy Dharmarajan Iyer, an IES officer and director in the Forward Markets Commission (FMC), the regulator for commodity markets in India. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in the late 90s when he was around 30 and already working as an economic advisor in FMC. His family sent him to London and US to seek a cure for his condition, using most of its savings. Seeing no improvement in his vision, Iyer came back disappointed. But he did not lose hope. Subsequently, he learnt Braille, the use of a cane and, importantly, technology, so that he could overcome his disability.

On his return, Iyer  rejoined work. He had to depend on friends and family to get work done at office, but his condition evoked little empathy among his colleagues. "Though they used to help, I had to wait for them to complete their work and then they would help me go through the files on my table," he says. Before the advent of JAWS (job access with speech)  software, Iyer used to record everything and carry his portable typewriter everywhere. His perseverance earned him four promotions in 14 years. He has seven years of service left, which gives him a good chance of becoming a joint secretary, which will be the first for any PWD. Today, he does not let his disability interfere with his life and work: he uses the workstation independently, travels on his own by local train from his residence in Chembur to his office in Marine Lines; cooks at home; and even goes around clicking photographs. He is also on the board of governors of the National Association for the Blind (NAB) for the past 15 years. He extends help to people with multiple disabilities and takes up their cause with the government.

There are any number of examples of people like Narang, Tripathi and Iyer who have overcome their disabilities and the discrimination associated with them to make a mark in society. Acceptance of PWDs, however, is a greater problem for those at the bottom of the pyramid than for those who have the support of their families and resources at their disposal such as Malini Chib, an author and a double postgraduate who suffers from cerebral palsy, and Hari Raghavan, a solutions specialist at IBM India who is visually impaired.

No Free Lunches
Since most PWDs from the bottom rung of society have no skills and education, companies are not willing to bear the cost of training them. Pratham Motors, an authorised dealer of Maruti Suzuki in Bangalore, has seven PWDs on its rolls but they are paid 20 per cent less than normal employees. Six visually impaired are with the company's call centre, selling insurance to  clients or making follow-up calls to customers for car service. The seventh PWD, who is hearing and speech impaired, works in the fitting department. "The cost of training is compensated by low salary. Though they are hardworking, their productivity is just 80 per cent of a normal employee," says Samar Bhasin, managing director and CEO of Pratham Motors.

Given his experience with PWDs, Bhasin  wants to hire more, but he is in no particular hurry. Dhruv Lakra, founder of Miracle Courier that employs 45 PWDs who are hearing impaired, injects a dose of reality. "They have huge confidence issues. They become so comfortable in their existing jobs that they do not want to take more responsibility. I have made it very clear that they will have to take responsibility if they have to work with us. Today, Miracle Courier is more business-oriented than social."

"Depend on friends and family to get work done at office"
R. DHARMARAJAN IYER Director, Forward Markets Commission
(BW Pic By Umesh Goswami)

But there are companies that take a more sympathetic view of the problems of PWDs. For instance, the Lemon Tree chain, which is currently experimenting with visually impaired and mobility challenged people, posts them in its front office as a matter of policy. Says Patu Keswani, CMD of Lemon Tree Hotels: "The only way out is growth, which comes with exposure, and one way for that is continuous interaction with people. The more they interact, the better their chances of growing." He says putting PWDs in the front office also makes people aware of them. "Rather than PWDs getting sensitised, it's important that we get sensitised to them." The chain has a 15 per cent attrition rate among PWDs, a fact that Keswani rues.

In many companies abroad, PWDs are thought to make good, dependable employees. So, the high rate of attrition among PWDs could also be because companies here are not doing things right. An example is the Bangalore set-up of Korea-based manufacturing company TaeguTec, which is 80 per cent owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway. Two years ago, it recruited two PWDs, but both left in the first month as they felt lonely — the two hearing-impaired people had been put in different batches.

Murlikrishna S., head, engineering and development at TaeguTec India, says: "We realised our mistake. A year ago we engaged Enable India, a Bangalore-based NGO. We are working on a pilot project which includes training of PWDs for jobs in-house as well as holding sensitising and training sessions for all employees." TaeguTec has recruited six people with diverse disabilities and put them together in the general shift. They are currently working in the preparation area and prepare inserts that go into the furnace. These inserts are used to cut metals for automobile and engineering companies such as Hero Honda, Mahindra & Mahindra, Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors, Bharat Forge and Larsen & Toubro. Says Murlikrishna: "We incur a cost which is 15 per cent more than normal. But recruiting differently-abled people is part of our CSR (corporate social responsibility) activity." TaeguTec spends half a per cent of its profit on such CSR activities.

It's not just companies that are on a learning curve when it comes to dealing with PWDs. There are success stories at the level of individuals too. One is that of Debasis Das, who did not know how to deal with two hearing and speech impaired employees when he first took charge of Costa Coffee's branch at Green Park in Delhi. But he made an effort to learn sign language and overcame the obstacle. He went on to head a team of six, all hearing impaired. He has recently been given charge of selecting, training and recruiting hearing impaired for Costa Coffee's franchises across Mumbai, NCR and Bangalore. But despite Das's efforts, 25-year-old Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, who once worked under Das, would like to leave if he gets a better job. "I have tried to get a government job but failed and, therefore, I am still at Costa," says Mishra.
"We can only help them by helping them get employment according to their ability. Thereafter they will have to carve their own path," says Bhullar of MDI Gurgaon. Interestingly, these thoughts are echoed across the spectrum of people from NGOs and trade bodies that are working with and for PWDs.

Enable India's founder Shanti Raghavan, who has for the past 11 years been preparing PWDs for the jobs that they eventually take up, has a perspective on the issue. She feels that companies are recruiting PWDs not because they see them adding value to their organisation or because it makes sound business sense to have diversity in the workplace. They are doing so for the sake of either being good citizens or just as a CSR activity. "They don't even get it that PWDs can be an alternate source of suitable employees, who can contribute to overall diversity, creativity and workplace morale, which can enhance their organisation's image and productivity."

Corporates do not entirely agree with all the stated benefits of hiring PWDs, though. Amitabh Kapoor of Net Ambit, which has been recruiting people with orthopedic disabilities, is amongst them. He says, "This is no CSR for us. It's a win-win; they get a career and we get the people." However, he adds that for Net Ambit, hiring PWDs has not actually helped in increasing retention. "The attrition levels for PWDs and normal employees are almost the same."

Still, efforts are being made at all levels to overcome the various problems encountered while working with PWDs. In May, a web portal, Jobability, was launched by Accenture in collaboration with the UK-based Leonard Cheshire Disability International to provide information related to livelihood opportunities for PWDs. Says K.K. Upadhyay, head, CSR, at FICCI, an industry lobby: "The portal will also have an online training programme to enhance their (PWDs) skills. The focus will be on soft skills and skills pertaining to the job." The government, too, is trying to double the quota for recruitment of PWDs in government jobs from the current 3 per cent, he says.

"We are still in the initial stage and have only scratched the surface. Work should be from the point of view of goal orientation and should be sustainable. Most importantly, after recruiting, it is necessary to keep track of the employees," says Raghavan. She feels organisations should also be reasonable and not think of PWDs as cheap labour. "It's foolish of someone to expect that anyone will sell his soul for Rs 3,000. Also, the attrition level is high in the unskilled segment. Besides, most companies prefer physically disabled candidates," she adds.

Lemon Tree hotels has some 100 pwds on its rolls. It aims to raise this number to 400 by the end of 2013
(BW Pic By Bivash Banerjee)

Most companies have also lagged in providing disabled-friendly infrastructure at their workplaces as well as their customer outlets.  Says FICCI's Upadhyay, "New structures are universal-friendly, but on a scale of 10 we are still at two." Ketna Mehta, who runs Nina Foundation for people with spinal cord injuries, agrees: "It is seen that constructing ramps has its advantages. We have seen normal people using them more than people on wheelchairs."

The government's efforts at providing job and social security for PWDs have not made much headway. Under the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, it targeted creation of 100,000 jobs for PWDs every year in the private sector for which it was willing to pay the employer's contribution to the Employees Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance for the first three years for PWDs with earnings below Rs 25,000 a month. But there has been no corresponding interest shown by the private sector, though some like Lakra of Miracle Courier blame that on a lack of awareness. Even the new Disability Act of 2011, which promises equality and non-discrimination, remains on paper.

But things are changing on the ground, albeit  slowly. In May this year, a separate Department of Disability Affairs was created under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to cater to the needs of PWDs. Then, even if most companies still think of recruiting PWDs as part of their CSR initiative, at least some progress towards their social inclusion is being made through that channel. But any change on a meaningful scale will not take place until corporate India comes around to the view that it makes business sense to have diversity in the workforce. But with hardly 2 per cent of PWDs educated, it may take a while before such thinking sets in.


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-07-2012)