Hearing and speech impaired staff members at cafés in the Capital evoke praise from customers

This café outlet in Delhi’s upmarket Green Park area serves coffee and eatables with a difference. Even on a busy evening, the service is quick and efficient though no word is exchanged between the customers and the staff. But the silence of the young boys and girls manning the counter speaks volumes of their presence.

Barring the outlet-in-charge or store leader Narendra, all other staff members here are speech and hearing impaired. Whether booking orders at the cash counter or serving customers, the small brigade of young boys and girls do it silently — with a smile, which at times is lacking at places where the able bodied are employed. 

According to Santhosh Unni, CEO of the coffee chain that runs the café, the initiative to employ hearing and speech impaired candidates started in 2007. “At present, the chain employs around 120 differently abled people across its outlets, and over the next two years it plans to have at least two to three such employees at each outlet.” 

At the Green Park outlet, Son Mini Lal, D. Nagnath, Nupur Shukla, Sabita and Jyoti work under Narendra. Before being appointed at an outlet, the candidates are trained in coffee-making, cash counter handling and communication skills to effectively interact with customers. It is amazing to see how even customers easily adopt the sign language to communicate with the staff. For larger orders or for customers not being able to find the right gesture, slips are placed at the cash counters. Orders can be jotted down on these slips. 

It is not just the special staff, but the entire staff and managers have to undergo training to work with the special staff. “In a customer front ended business such as ours, training is of paramount importance... Every Red Shirt (store leader) in our outlets has to necessarily go through an intensive education and understanding of sign language before he or she is given responsibility of managing a store,” says Mr. Unni. 

Mokksha Nagdev, a frequent visitor to the Green Park outlet, is all praise for the staff at the café. “They are better than the able-bodied,” she exclaims. Mokksha should know. She is a trained clinical psychologist working with a Gurgaon-based school run by a non-profit body for special children. She is proved right when you see how quickly they lip-read the order! 

“Contrary to expectations and traditional thinking on this aspect, the support and appreciation from our customers has been overwhelming,” points out Mr. Unni. According to him, almost all their customers are happy to be served by a committed workforce of special people who always have a ready smile on their face and try harder to please customers. “The feedback from large number of customers indicates a double benefit — consumers say this experience has taught them the virtue of patience and understanding in this fast-paced life and has helped them develop a new respect for persons with disability.” 

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