More than just coffee
Yesterday my son and I stopped for coffee. Usually we go to Barista because he simply loves the mango smoothie they sell but given that I was hungry and Barista’s snack menu is nothing short of terrible, we headed for Costa coffee. My son smirked but sensing my hunger pangs, decided to go along.
I settled for a sandwich and as usual it came with tomato ketchup. I never understand why in most places in India, ketchup is a must. I also do not know why mustard, French or any other, is a rarity. So as I am prone to do every time I order a sandwich, I asked for mustard. The waiter simply smiled and used sign language to say that he could not hear. I was a bit stumped. Maybe he had an ear infection or a temporary ailment which had perhaps affected his hearing, I concluded. I tried once again to explain but made little headway. Ofcourse the manager pitched in and supplied sachets of mustard.
A little later another waiter stopped by our table and with an infectious smile nodded and cleared the clutter. I then asked him for the menu. He nodded, used a sign language and said that he could not hear. This time around I thought someone was playing a prank. Two waiters serving guests and physically challenged? A coincidence or by design? The reporter in me egged me to call the manager to check this out. I did only to be told that it was part of the management policy to hire hearing-impaired personnel and give them respectable jobs. More importantly put them in the forefront to interact with the guests. In other words make them the face of the café.
Personally, the idea struck me as brilliant. Jobs apart, the confidence this would instill in those the society has ignored was the key point. Add to that the fact that those relegated to back benches for decades on end, could now form part of the mainstream.
I needed to find out more: whether this was a one off thing or a well thought out policy. Following my conversation with the manager, who by now was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable at my persistent questioning, I discovered it was neither: not a one off thing nor a well thought out policy. From what I gathered it was an all India initiative by Devyani International Limited. DIL is an all India franchisee for Costa Coffee and also runs KFC outlets in the city. The company had, the manager, informed me decided to induct in every outlet he ran at least two or more waiters. In this particular outlet in Safdarjang Development Area, off IIT gate in South Delhi, of the 12 employees, five cannot hear.
Irrespective of their hearing impairment, the management had trained them well in their jobs and instilled in them the confidence to signal to the customer upfront that they had a hearing problem rather than trying to push it under the carpet or being apologetic about it. That to my mind was the most important thing about this initiative: to make them feel equal and look us in the eye and help us confront facts which they live with day in and out.
I later discovered that the regulars to this café first went up to the counter, greeted these waiters and then placed the order. Some I noticed insisted on being served by them. It was no rocket science to figure out that these pleasantly smiling young men were the face of this coffee chain.
It was my first experience but one which gave me goose-pimples and helped me to make a promise: My coffee always at Costa and fried chicken at KFC.
Another point struck me: that this initiative is one from the heart and not with a bid to woo the market on humanitarian grounds or tell people that drinking a costa coffee means helping the physically challenged. None of that. In fact till asked the management does not even speak about it and treats it as normal. That, as I said, is the strong point of this exercise: bring them at par and give them the confidence to deal with their physical state as we would our mundane problems rather than showcase them as guinea pigs to be stared at, sympathized with or cashed in on. I could not touch base with the the initiaters but through this space I salute them for their silent contribution to touching lives often ignored.
I also ask politicians to take lessons in dignity from such people. I ask their sycophants to stop elevating political leaders to demi gods and spending hundreds and thousands of rupees celebrating their birthdays, carting kilos and kilos of inedible cake or putting up life size posters all over the city. Instead follow this initiative and do something to change lives.