Crowded with students, photocopy shops and food joints, Delhi’s Hudson lane is a busy area. To please the new crop of students every season, this area witnesses hip restaurants and fashion-forward boutiques spring to life frequently. Even then, very few eateries in the area have struck the idea of being inclusive and accessible to everyone.
“There are a lot of cool places with amazing ideas here but we do not always find restaurants where we dine next to or interact with, say, transgenders or people who are differently-abled”, says Aakanksha De, a student of Psychology, who is interested in pursuing a career in the field of Disability Rights.
But then for a place that does not know how to survive without change, the idea of inclusivity in the food space is slowly finding its way. Back in January 2016, a group of six friends in a bid to do something different came up with the idea of a restaurant, Echoes, and decided to focus on three things – great food, a stunning ambience, and a hundred percent differently-abled service staff.
“It wasn’t an easy idea. We wanted to be different and at the same time, we wanted to contribute to society. But we really didn’t know how it would pan out”, Prateek Babbar, owner of the restaurant says. After two years now, the restaurant boasts of three chains across two metro cities and employs around 70 differently-abled people.
Prince, one of the members of the service crew, who started working with Echoes since its launch, is a happier, more confident person now. “At times, I travel and train others. I meet people who are differently-abled and have colleagues who face the same problems as I do. It has helped me feel less lonely”, he says.
Across the city, many other restaurants are adopting similar practices. According to a report in the Economic Times, “Close to 80% of the staff at Lemon Tree’s newly opened property in Sector 60, Gurgaon, are people with disabilities”. As per the same report, food giants such as Yum! Brands that owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have also taken a step to make the food space more inclusive. “Today, as a rule, for every 15 outlets that KFC opens, one of them is managed by PwDs, who make up 70% of the staff there”, the report stated.
Soda Bottle Opener Wala, a Parsi joint in the city, is catching up too. “When I went to Soda Bottle Opener Wala in Noida, I was given a cute little handout along with the menu. After a while, I realised some of the wait staff had speech and hearing impairment. It was so thoughtful of them to give us a handout. It really touched me. I also think it’s a wonderful way to increase awareness”, Risha, a resident of Noida told indianexpress.com.
Taking a step towards conscious capitalism, coffee chains like Costa Coffee are hiring differently-abled wait staff across their outlets. But unfortunately, Green Park’s Costa Coffee outlet that employed differently-abled staff, until about a year back, does not boast of the same anymore. “We had wait staff in this branch who were differently-abled. But now, some of them have left and some of them have been transferred”, the Green Park Costa Coffee outlet’s manager, Hem, tells indianexpress.com.
Of the approximately 70 million people with disabilities in India, only about 0.1 million have succeeded in finding employment in the industries till now. Arman Ali, head of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), feels we have a long way to go. “There is a lot of stigma around disability. Many people who are born with a disability are hidden by their family members. This increases fear and stigma around them. Including them in a client facing role is a much-needed step”, he says.
On International Day of Persons with Disability, it is heartening to see many restaurants and food giants opening up employment opportunities for PwDs and acknowledging their contribution to the businesses. For all the new food places that keep cropping up every week, maybe it is time for them to add inclusivity and accessibility to make it truly unique and cool.