Are businesses missing out on opportunities to sensitise & include?

03 Nov,2022

Starbucks outlet at Noida Sector 16B where the baristas use sign language

Starbucks outlet at Noida Sector 16B where the baristas use sign language Photograph: Shruti Pushkarna

 

 

By Shruti Pushkarna

 

Shruti PushkarnaThis week started with waking up to the news of Morbi bridge collapse and the death toll crossing 130. Since 2020, health, education, employment, entertainment and almost every aspect of our lives have been reeling under the aftermath of Covid 19. News reports and social conversations revolve around natural or manmade disasters, rape and murder, fiscal scams and political horse trading.

 

Radicalisation and inflation are on the rise. Cars, petrol, houses, food, everything costs more. There are no jobs.  Businesses are struggling. We are taxed for everything, including hospital room rent.

 

In short, an average Indian is grappling with a gazillion problems on a daily basis. If your own issues don’t depress you enough, there is communal hyperbole to push you towards hopelessness.

 

A simple ask for empathy seems unreasonable against this ubiquitous backdrop of societal grief. At a time, when the daily commute to work and back is an exercise in aggression due to bad roads, bad driving and bad traffic, how can anyone retain their sensitivity towards another human being?

 

Thousands of people in urban and rural parts of the country can’t think beyond arranging two square meals a day. No wonder politicians and corporate giants get away with dirty ploys and false promises, because who is keeping track anyway?

 

Fighting for inclusion and access for persons with disabilities sometimes seems secondary in this context. Especially if a large part of advocacy involves calling out the gaps and faults. At times, it helps to apply a two-pronged approach to the same problem. Where shrill activism fails, positive reinforcement does the trick.

 

On that optimistic note, let me refrain from citing unmet targets and implementation loopholes pertaining to the country’s disabled population in today’s piece. Instead I want to share two encouraging encounters which deserve propagation.

 

Due to temporary confinement following a knee injury, my movements inside and outside the house were possible only with the aid of a wheelchair. Desirous of watching a movie in the cinema hall, I booked a seat in PVR Director’s Cut at Ambience Mall, Delhi. I assumed there would be wheelchair access to the last row of seats I booked. But when I reached the assigned auditorium, the staff enquired if I could stand up and walk at all. Used to taking my mother (in her wheelchair) around inaccessible spaces, I was ready to slip into my activist avatar, demanding access. Just then the extremely polite personnel brought out a motorised wheelchair and helped me shift out of mine.

 

Before anyone else entered the hall, I was escorted up the several set of stairs, seated secured with a seatbelt. It took the wheelchair operator around ten to fifteen minutes to transport me to my seat. He did that with patience and grace. I was mightily impressed. Of course, similar treatment was meted out at the time of exiting the hall. In addition, as my husband escorted me to the accessible washroom, the PVR staff jumped up to help, ensuring the facility was clean.

 

My inability to walk didn’t hamper my entertainment experience, thanks to the trained and empathetic staff. There are definitely solutions available to accommodate and include, even in physical spaces that are built discarding the principles of universal design.

 

I also noticed fellow movie-goers observe how a young person with an impairment was out and about, enjoying a fun evening like anyone else. If there were people speculating why did I venture out at all, I’m certain there were an equal number wondering, why not!

 

Subtle sensitisation supersedes stereotypes.

 

A few days ago, when I went down to a newly opened Starbucks to fetch myself my morning dose of caffeine, I was in for a pleasant surprise. I noticed the baristas at work were quietly focused on their jobs except they exchanged a few signs with each other as orders were passed on.

 

Curious, I asked the cashier if they were hearing impaired. Her response was affirmative. All the seven baristas were hearing and speech impaired and their two managers were fluent in sign language. The cashier proudly shared that she was pursuing an advanced course in Indian Sign Language to further bridge the communication gap.

 

With a barista at the Starbucks outlet

With a barista at the Starbucks outlet

As I collected my cup of coffee, I remembered to sign ‘Thank You’ to the cheerful server. I also signed to check if I could take a picture with him. He obliged, acknowledging my honest attempt to communicate in an inclusive language.

 

This Starbucks is located on the ground floor of a commercial building that houses several private offices and a co-working space, in Noida Sector 16B. High influx of professionals provides an unmissable opportunity for sensitisation. Hiring persons with disabilities in a mainstream job helps counter misconceptions along with restoring agency and dignity.

 

These two recent incidents speak of the power of change that is possible with certain additions and adjustments to a limited (and rigid) idea of normal. Publicising and broadcasting such acts of inclusion can whip up support for the excluded (disabled, elderly, severely ill) sections of the population. Practical demonstrations also help individuals and institutions realise that incorporating accessibility is not unfathomable.

 

Here’s hoping that several such reports feature on the ‘good news’ sections of mainstream media.

 

 

So why are we publishing this column on an A&M site? Well, we strongly feel that the media can dramatically transform the world of persons with disabilities. And this series can help bring forth issues that the media must champion to create a truly inclusive and accessible India. To write this column, we invited Shruti Pushkarna, a former journalist who now works as Director, EnAble India where she heads North India operations as well as media and communications outreach. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. To access the archives of all her 60-plus columns, please visit: https://www.mxmindia.com/category/columns/shruti-pushkarna/

 

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