A chat with Mr. Niranjan Khatri, General Manager of Welcomenviron Initiatives at the ITC hotels, is enlightening, to say the least. It is rapidly obvious that here is a professional who has not just a passion but an informed opinion and several innovative ideas on all issues dealing with disability, specifically employment of people of people with disabilities in the hospitality sector.

ITC hotels is well-known for being one of the pioneering organizations in India, in the area of sustainability. The values of the ITC group find their full expression in the various sustainability initiatives of ITC hotels, be it their commitment to disability, their propogation of Individual Social Reponsibility, or WelcomeEnviron, their initiative for a greener world. Mr. Khatri made an interesting point. “Empathy is something that is already embedded in the hospitality industry. So we thought, why not extend this empathy to solve a social issue. We want to be empathetic and not merely sympathetic!” The hotels division started small with recruiting a lady with cerebral palsy, way back in 2005, in the “back of the house” in their Jaipur property. Based on the positive experience of this recruitment, they hired a hearing-impaired resource in the Engineering Control room in their Sheraton hotel in New Delhi. A hearing and speech-impaired girl employed to input reservation details in ITC Windsor Manor (Bengaluru) contributed to significant revenue enhancement!

Such small but very significant successes paved the way for more confident hiring and today the hotels division employs 125 PWDs (about 2.5% of their total workforce). At the same time that ITC hotels started employing people who have multiple disabilities, they also extended the idea beyond their hotels. Discarded flowers of hotels are given to people with multiple disabilities to break the petals from the stem and the petals so collected are used for extracting organic colours, for the textile industry. This is a fine example of employing triple bottom line concept to address the economic, environment and the social dimensions of the people with disability.

Mr. Khatri explained how they made their properties more accessible. “We conducted an access audit with the help of a professional auditor, and we reduced the physical barrier in our existing hotels by approximately 85%. We could not attain 100% for the simple reason that we could not break the pillars or some specific architectural features to make it barrier free. However, with this insight, we decided that all our future hotels would be universally designed and the ITC Royal Gardenia is the first hotel in the country to be a barrier free hotel.”

Mr. Khatri and his operations teams relies on several NGOs working in the disability sector like National Association for the Blind (NAB) India and Enable India. Mr. Khatri firmly believes in Cashless CSR. He believes that writing a cheque is philanthropy, but in order to teach a man how to fish, you need to leverage skill-sets of industry, leverage your network and finally, leverage technology to create scale (or what he calls the Viral Strategy!). ITC Hotels’ biggest and finest contribution has not been employing 125 people. It has been their evangelizing work in sensitising the local ecosystem (guests, vendors, employees and other organizations). It has been in helping other companies to implement similar policies and show them how it can be done. It has been in learning and unlearning every single day, and understanding that this is a journey whose end is still far far away.

Nowhere is the cashless CSR and wireless strategy more apparent than in the guides that they have created, for public dissemination. Employing persons with disabilities, a booklet brought out in partnership with AccessAbility, is a very useful handbook for any organization interested in employing PWDs but unsure of where to start. The booklet de-mystifies the subject and painstakingly answers the many questions that potential employers might have. Such as, how do I identify suitable jobs, how do I make the whole recruitment process transparent and sensitive, how do I make workplace adjustment, how do I do career planning for PWDs, how do I manage performance, augment skills and retain PWDs?

The Guide to Universal Design is another public document designed to address the informational gaps in creating accessible built environments. “Universal design is the design of products and environments to be useable, by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design “. All people could include obese people, short people, people with disabilities, senior citizens, pregnant ladies and so on. The document is adapted to the Indian context and incorporates design aspects that are Equitable (‘Saman’), Usable (‘Sahaj’), Cultural (‘Sanskritik’), Economy (‘Sasta’) and Aesthetic (‘Sundar’). Coming up are 2 more publications, one on Assistive Technologies and another on Disability etiquette.

I asked Mr. Khatri, how ITC hotels is institutionalizing the disability initiative. After all, embedding the initiative into the company DNA is key and it must be independent of individuals. Mr. Khatri agreed and reiterated that this is a journey with no final destination and that ITC hotels attempts, every single day, to ensure that employment of PWDs is not just an “initiative” but business as usual. He seeks to bring about a change in people’s blinkered vision and attitudes towards the disabled. The journey is not ITC’s alone but every one of us. Mr. Khatri concluded with his three mantras for sustainability.

Think exponential not incremental. Viralize good ideas. Create opportunities where none exist.

Truly, food for thought!