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PWD Day: How Foreword Coffee, MBS, Uniqlo, and more are building inclusive work environments for the differently-abled



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– With inputs from Jerene Ang and Aditi Sharma Kalra

With today (3 December) being the International Day of Disabled Persons 2019, Human Resources Online takes a look at how Marina Bay Sands, Foreword Coffee, Methodist Girls’ School, UNIQLO, and other similarly-progressive employers across the region are taking steps to hiring, training and working with persons with disabilities (PWDs), thus building a truly inclusive working environment.

Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands (MBS) currently employs 28 PWDs, who work in in different departments across the property. Since it opened in 2010, it began to hire a diverse and inclusive workforce which includes persons with disabilities.

In the same year, it partnered with Metta School on the Marina Bay Sands Youth Inspiration Programme, where it provided internship positions for students in the housekeeping and culinary departments. At the end of their year-long internship, the company also offered three of the students full-time employment positions in its pastry department.

Commenting on this, Chan Yit Foon, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Marina Bay Sands, said: “Witnessing the Metta students growing their confidence and fully assimilating into a work environment strengthened our commitment to provide persons with disabilities with opportunities to seek meaningful work and integrate into society.”

The team never saw any hiccup as a challenge but rather, as steps that helped in the hiring process. For instance, in finding jobs that were suitable for PWDs, to ensure that they are able to meet the demands of the jobs. Chan shares: “We appreciate that additional time, proper support and supervision are often required to help them assimilate into the work environment.

“While our business units are generally open to hiring persons with disabilities, some may have initial concerns, such as finding appropriate ways to assimilate them in the work environment, providing proper support and managing performance while being mindful of their disabilities.”

Further, the team had to take into account reconfiguring the office space and work stations, in order to accommodate wheelchairs and other hardware requirements.

Last, the team was also mindful of managing the expectations of the PWDs before they started their employment. “The time and attention required for this may limit the number of PWDs that a department can employ at a given time,” she explains.

In catering to the needs of these PWDs, Chan says there was no need to alter or adapt any HR policies given that MBS started off with inclusive employment practices. That said, the firm still took some proactive actions to care for them. For one, the team is constantly identifying suitable job opportunities with agencies such as SG Enable and SPD (formerly Society for the Physically Disabled) for their beneficiaries.

She shares: “After the identification of suitable jobs, arrangements are made for the agencies to visit the various workplaces. This allows them to understand the operations and job demands and to assess the office layout and workstations for recommended modifications.”

Apart from this, the team also ensures risk assessment and approvals from management and regulatory authorities are obtained before contractors are appointed, to make workplace modifications that provide a safe and comfortable work environment, as well as enable team members with disabilities to be more independent.

Other actions taken include replacing heavy double swing doors with semi-automated swing doors which open when an access card is tapped, giving easy access to wheelchair users at the call centre; designating dining tables for wheelchairs in the dining room; making special arrangements for them to collect their uniforms from the wardrobe counter instead of from the automated wardrobe doors; and more.

Through this journey, Chan and her team have uncovered some key learning points, noting that hiring and engaging PWDs creates a win-win situation for individuals, teams, and the overall organisations.

She tells us: “When persons with disabilities gain employment, it creates more empathetic and supportive teams, and the culture of diversity and inclusion lives and grows in Marina Bay Sands.

We have observed that the departments that hire persons with disabilities put in extra effort to engage, train and assimilate the staff into the work environment and culture.

“These are the same departments that are tapping on a new talent pool with valuable traits and skills.”


Foreword Coffee

Foreword Coffee, a social enterprise member of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprises (raiSE) established in 2017, started with a mission to empower persons with special needs by providing employment and skills training in the F&B industry.

According to Lim Wei Jie, the specialty coffee company’s Founder and Director, this mission is guided by the belief that PWDs can excel, when given the opportunities to do so.

The firm currently employs 18 staff, of which 16 either have some kind of disability, special needs, or mental health condition.

Lim explains: “At Foreword Coffee, we train and hire persons with autism, mild intellectual disability, deafness and cerebral palsy, and we leverage on their strengths and place them at different stations within the café – cashier, premix drinks, espresso, and milk frothing.”

In training these staff, earlier this year, Foreword Coffee benefited from the Open Door Programme Training Grant under Workforce Singapore (WSG)’s Adapt and Grow initiative, where the company launched a 40-hour-long Barista Confidence Training Programme that aims to equip PWDs with the knowledge and skills to work in a café serving specialty coffee.

Through this and with the hiring of PWDs, Lim notes that there were some challenges faced along the way. For instance, he shares: “While we try to carve out jobs for PWDs, we ultimately want the individuals to be independent at their work stations and be able to contribute to our overall work system, however small or large they may be.

“It is a challenge for us if the individual needs supervision most of the time at work, and that is where job coaches can help us to integrate these employees into our workplace.”

Additionally, the team also faced the challenge of communication, not wanting its deaf employees to be left out of any information shared. To overcome this, the team made it a point to learn sign language in informal sessions during quiet times at the cafés, through its deaf supervisors and manager.

When necessary, the team also communicates in writing, especially anyone who does not know sign language. More importantly, Lim adds:

We also need to deal a lot with emotions at the workplace. Many of our employees are still young (19 to 25 years old) and they are still learning to become an adult in the way they manage themselves.

When it comes to HR policies, Foreword Coffee’s policy on medical certificates (MCs) is based on mutual trust, with no need for proof unless the employee wishes to claim their medical expenses from the company.

Lim further shares that in terms of employment contract, the firm requires that there is at least one other witness to sign on it – for instance, the PWD employee’s parent, referral agency, or both, to ensure both the employee and witnesses are aware of the details in the contract.

Concluding, Lim stresses that the term ‘PWD’ is just a blanket term, and that all PWDs should not be viewed the same way. For example, he explains: “It is inaccurate to label some with autism as ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’.

“One key learning point when working with persons with autism is that even though a person with autism can commute independently and carry out conversations eloquently, he/she could still exhibit social skills deficiency that could cause issues at work.”

He adds that this could be something “as simple as” receiving too many instructions at one go, which the individual will then not know how to process. “There are occasions where the individual could exhibit feelings of happiness and confidence even though he/she has already offended a colleague unknowingly who has since reported to the supervisor.

“Persons with autism need clear, simple instructions at work, and they need to be told explicitly how well they are doing at work. Yet, this may not be representative of all persons with autism because everyone is unique.”


Methodist Girls’ School

Methodist Girls’ School currently has one PWD, Madam Tang Lai Mui, who is visually-impaired and has worked with the school for the past 27 years.

In support of her needs, the school has worked with the Ministry of Education over the years to seek opportunities to that would increase Madam Tang’s productivity at work.

Desmond Yip, Vice-Principal (Administration), Methodist Girls’ School, elaborates: “For example, we have sourced for better equipment to help her to do her work better. In 2017, we tapped on the Open Door Programme’s funding support to purchase a magnifier for Madam Tang when her previous magnifier broke down.

“We have also embraced technology to reduce the need to print hard copies where relevant, so that Madam Tang can focus on more important school-based printing work and other logistics management tasks.”

In line with this, Yip notes the importance of building trust with PWDs that are employed, as with all other staff. He stresses: “We should also encourage open communication, and build in some flexibility to their work scope to cater to their needs where possible. We should look beyond their disabilities and leverage on their strengths, as each person has unique capabilities to contribute meaningfully to the organisation.”

As a reminder to all employers who are progressing to hire PWDs, Yip also shares:

I believe that once trust is established, they will feel appreciated and affirmed in their work. They will also put their hearts and minds to do well, just as any good employee will do.  

Both Foreword Coffee and Methodist Girls’ School were able to hire and train their PWD employees with the support of WSG.

On working with such progressive employers, and in a call to encourage more employers to do so, Gillian Woo, Director, Partners and Operations Division, Workforce Singapore, shares: “We recognise that PWDs are an integral part of the Singapore workforce and should be valued and recognised for the talents they bring to the workplace and society. Employers should appreciate what PWDs can bring to the organisation.

“Hence, we call upon employers to look beyond their disabilities and have a mindset that embraces diversity. Encouraging strides have been made in promoting inclusiveness in the community, and we will continue to support employers in hiring PWDs through job redesign efforts, and funding support under WSG’s Adapt and Grow initiative, in collaboration with SG Enable.”

At a glance: What UNIQLO, Prione, Candor Techspace, and Accenture India, are doing for PWDs

UNIQLO 

The global clothing retailer currently employs 28 PWDs, and works with MINDS Hi-Job!, the organisation’s job placement and job support unit, to hire PWD employees who have intellectual disabilities such as autism, down syndrome or other mental health-related issues. The firm works very closely with MINDS Hi-Job! job coaches to understand each PWD employee’s profile and way of communication.

Employees, including the PWDs, also work in a buddy system, where the PWD employees can work alongside a fellow employee to receive support as they adapt to the new environment. The PWDs will first ease themselves into the roles by working in our stockroom. The assigned tasks are broken down into simpler steps to ease them in and learn better. They are then assessed based on their performance, capacity and comfort-level and assigned new tasks accordingly.

Some of the tasks, similar to that of non-PWD employees, include product unpacking and replenishment and ensuring that the stores are kept clean and tidy.

UNIQLO also has Retail@DSS, a partnership between UNIQLO Singapore and APSN Delta Senior School (APSN DSS). It is a fashion retail training room and Special Education school in Singapore, and is one of the initiatives by UNIQLO Singapore to support and improve opportunities for PWDs.

The programme provides an authentic training platform and opportunities for students with special needs to enhance their knowledge and skills in the area of fashion retailing that are current in the industry. This helps students better seek, secure and sustain employment in the retail industry in the future. It also provides avenues for these students to hone their skills for the real world and prepare them for smoother integration into the workforce.

In this, UNIQLO provided the lesson plans, training materials, as well as assists in the set-up of the authentic fashion retail store in the classroom, while APSN DSS customised their curriculum with reference to UNIQLO’s prescribed training manual to cater to the learning capabilities of their students. UNIQLO also provided training support for APSN DSS trainers.

Prione

As part of business services provider Prione’s Diversity, Inclusion and Leadership (DIAL) programme, the firm lays heavy emphasis on creating a diverse, but inclusive workplace and work towards ensuring each of its employees and partners understand the nuances of working in such an environment.

Sandeep Varaganti, MD and CEO, Prione, explains: “At Prione, we not only work to make the workplace accessibility friendly for people with disabilities, but also work with our partners and vendors to ensure the job roles are supported with the right software and physical infrastructure.”

As part of World Disability day, the firm is launching an initiative to build awareness and track the PWD status of its current employee base. In line with this, as part of Prione’s 2020 plan, the team is also creating a playbook based on the learning’s of its PWD hires, that will include best practices and tie into the brand’s overall unconscious bias programme.”

Candor TechSpace 

Real estate firm Candor TechSpace has been designed with a strong emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility, as the office spaces are equipped with wheelchair parking areas, access ramps at entrances and specially built washrooms. With five special economic zone campuses across Delhi NCR and Kolkata, Candor Techspace is an office for leading companies like TCS, Cognizant, Genpact, HCL.

Accenture India

Multinational professional services company Accenture’s India arm has set up its Accessibility Council comprising senior business leaders to ensure the company is an ideal workplace for persons with disabilities. As a step in achieving this, the office is wheelchair friendly and sign language interpreters are available. The company is also re-designing busy areas such as its cafeterias for barrier-free movement.

Capgemini India

The consulting and technological services provider has taken an approach of accessibility by providing accessible Infrastructure, IT systems, and reasonable adjustment to persons with disabilities.



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