People pay lip service to disability and the disabled. But Lemon Tree does not believe in selling lemons. It actually mainstreams the disabled
As one walks into the Clever Fox Café at Delhi airport, a smiling Shiraz welcomes with folded hands. He displays a card, which reads ‘Hi, I’m Shiraz and I work at Clever Fox Café. I have Down syndrome. If you write down your request, I will be very happy to serve you’. Shiraz then directs you to the available table at the restaurant. After you settle down, he brings the menu card and fills the glasses. Shiraz diligently makes a note of all the orders and puts a star mark against the special request to keep the spices moderate. All this while, not even for a single moment, the broad grin on Shiraz’s face disappears.
Cleve Fox Café is part of the Red Fox Hotel, which is an economy hotel of the Lemon Tree group of hotels. Lemon Tree was founded in September 2002 and currently owns and operates 40 hotels in 23 cities, with 4,100 rooms, making it the third largest hotel chain in India. It has got around 4,000 employees, out of which more than 500 employees have some form of physical or cognitive disability. They constitute over 13 per cent of total staff strength of Lemon Tree hotels. Of these, more than 350 are speech and hearing impaired (SHI) people, while around 100 are orthopedically handicapped. There are some who have Down syndrome, Shiraz being one of them.
According to Census 2011 data, persons with disabilities, numbering 26.8 million, account for 2.21 per cent of India’s population. However, only three per cent of them are gainfully employed. This number is as high as 40-50 per cent in the developed world. Interestingly, last year, Parliament passed the Rights of Persons With Disabilities Bill in December. Other than providing for harsher punishment for discrimination against differently-abled persons, the bill also defines disability as an evolving and dynamic concept. It increased the types of disabilities from existing seven to 21. As per some estimates, around 10 per cent of the Indian population is affected by disability of one form or the other.
These scary figures used to worry Patu Keshwani, Founder of Lemon Tree. He says, “This vast majority of differently-abled people don’t get jobs easily in our country, because there is no social net. So, we thought of doing something about it.” That’s how Lemon Tree started employing people who had some form of disability. Keshwani didn’t want to make much fuss about it, and saw it purely as providing opportunity to this segment. He doesn’t bat an eyelid as he speaks: “In our organisation, disability is not treated as abnormal, they are absolutely normal. There is no sense of charity, because I think that kills someone’s self-dignity”.
Today, one needs to walk into any of the Lemon Tree hotels to understand what Keshwani means. All of the specially abled staff are extremely courteous and very proactive in their work. The speech and hearing impaired staff at their restaurant, housekeeping operations or coffee shops, impress the customers with their extraordinary warmth and joyful demeanour. People with Down syndrome deliver food as well as smiles at your table with equal finesse. And that’s precisely the reason, they are called ‘happy people’ in the staff circle. Priya works as a desk attendant. She explains with a distinctive pride, “I receive calls from the guests and forward them to the designated department. I also handle all the files and reports and pass on the necessary information to my seniors.” Priya is a polio victim and walks with a limp. But that doesn’t become a hurdle in her way of becoming an efficient task handler. She credits most of her success to her seniors who are very supportive.
Lemon Tree is proud of its culture, where alienation and marginalisation finds no takers. Aradhana Lal, Vice President, Sustainability Initiatives at The Lemon Tree Hotel Company says: “It takes a strong vision, support from the top management, meticulous planning, robust sensitisation and frequent reviews to engage with people with disabilities and integrate them into the workforce as the regular staff.” This push from the top management emanates down the hierarchy chain and augurs well for a friendly environment.
The sincerity with which the management looks into this is reflected in the fact that entire staff at the Lemon Tree Hotels know the Indian Sign Language. Not only this, it is a part of their performance appraisal system too. Every new employee at the group has to undergo a mandatory training, called ‘Expressions’, on Indian Sign Language, after which they are tested on the same, where it is compulsory to score at least 85 per cent. R Hari, General Manager, HR sees this as a fundamental requirement of the organisation. He explains that regular employees who don’t know sign language cannot be promoted to the supervisory or executive levels as they will not be able to communicate with the SHI employees who make a large part of the workforce.“Whenever we bring in a new disability, we take help from the NGOs. In cases of intellectual disability, it takes demonstration to help the managers and regular staff understand how to interact with the specially abled. We get special educators to be in the field, working with the managers, in the entire teaching process,” explains Lal. The company has partnered with several NGOs like Noida Deaf Society, Sai Swayam Society, Muskaan,
Youth For Jobs, etc., for sourcing employees and also for training and sensitising the staff.
The New Normal
The ease with which Lemon Tree has integrated specially abled people and scaled it up efficiently is a brilliant model of sustainability. The group has taken this beyond their organisation and are now actively partnering with external organisations, including National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC), to create training modules for the persons with disabilities. Lal has a very objective, business way of looking at this. “The room boys in housekeeping can normally clean about 16 rooms, whereas a person with SHI does 19 rooms a day probably because they spend lesser time chatting while working. This implies that they are 15 per cent more productive than their colleagues, and which company doesn’t want more productivity.” Clearly, Lemon Tree has shown a brilliant business example where the specially abled people are able to find a dignified life for themselves.
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