I have never seen a more efficient and jollier group than Teriyaki Boy’s crew of deaf employees, with full smiles on their faces as they serve one dish after another with the utmost care. They exuded warmth and sincerity as they attended to their diners’ needs, keen on understanding every detail and delivering every request with commendable service. Why then, given this kind of character and performance, are PWDs deemed incapable of working in the foodservice industry?

“Many people with disabilities are actually high-functioning. It’s just that they were never given opportunities to contribute to society,” says John Amante, Teriyaki Boy and Sizzlin’ Steak’s chief operating officer.

Teriyaki Boy and Sizzlin’ Steak champions inclusivity and diversity in the workplace through their advocacy on hiring PWDs

Teriyaki Boy and Sizzlin’ Steak have been hiring PWD employees, particularly deaf individuals, since 2018. They started out with 10 employees who were designated the roles of back of the house staff, handling the bar and sushi stations across branches all over the country. Max’s Group Inc. (MGI), the group behind these two restaurants, wants to create a workplace where employees feel safe and included, especially the PWD.

“It’s more important that society recognizes them. When people start recognizing that they can actually contribute to themselves, their families, and society, that’s when they’ll realize that they’re abled beings,” says John Amante.

“Their productivity is very high. It actually encourages their other colleagues. The other workers will say, “Uy, ang dami na nilang nagagawa. Tayo nagkukuwentuhan pa.” Aside from that, their workmanship is always better, they are always focused. They are abled people, [they’re] just not given an opportunity,” says Amante.

Their employees, as interpreted by their manager, expressed their happiness and passion in having an opportunity to work and contribute to the society

Amante notes that having PWDs work will give them a kind of fulfillment that, for the longest time, society has deprived them of: economic independence.

As an inclusive workplace, MGI sees hiring PWDs as blind trust. As long as they were able to pass the test and train under programs with their partners like the College of Saint Benilde and Leonard Cheshire Disability Philippines Foundation Inc., they’re deemed to have all the foundation they need to start working. After undergoing these, there wouldn’t be much of a gap in communication among a company’s workers. Some deaf employees can even read the lips of the person speaking to them.

Max’s Group Inc. has been hiring PWD employees for over two years now

The workload, according to Amante, is in itself very demanding. However, this only fuels their employees to work harder and once the management sees that they’re doing well in their job in the salad bar and sushi station, there’s no stopping their PWD employees from moving to the hot kitchen

“That’s the beauty of our program—no one is left behind,” says Hazel Joy Borja.

“It’s more important that society recognizes them. When people start recognizing that they can actually contribute to themselves, their families, and society, that’s when they’ll realize that they’re abled beings,” says Amante.

LEAVING NO ONE BEHIND

The Leonard Cheshire Disability Philippines Foundation Inc. (LCDPF) caters to all types of disabilities. This includes the deaf, the blind, as well as people with learning disabilities. They source their candidates by working with local governments, welfare offices, and schools to help PWD individuals that are employable. 

Leonard Cheshire Disability Philippines Foundation Inc. holds disability inclusive training programs for employers and employees alike to prepare them for hiring PWDs

They have three core programs. The first one is Inclusive Education, which focuses on helping children with disabilities reach their highest educational and social potential. They also have their Young Voices Program, which caters to the youth with disabilities aged 15 to 25 years old. This program hones their leadership skills in order to empower them in terms of advocating for their rights. Finally, they have the Economic Empowerment Program, which gives PWDs access to employment and livelihood opportunities.

“Companies really have to give opportunities to people with disabilities. It all starts with changing the mindset—let’s believe that they have abilities, then we give them opportunities and the right support,” says Borja.

“That’s the beauty of our program—no one is left behind. [If] you are interested [in going into] wage employment, we can provide you the needed support based on the assessment that we do. Prior to giving them capital assistance, we do a lot of training for them, like entrepreneurship, livelihood projects, and income-generating activities they want to engage in. We don’t give them money, but we give them materials to support their chosen livelihood,” says Hazel Joy Borja, programmes manager of LCDPF.

LCDPF caters to PWDs of all ages, giving them the support and assistance they need to instigate independence and empowerment

As much as possible, they want their candidates to already gain skills through apprenticeship programs and supplemental training. While facilitating their placement, candidates undergo pre-employment workshops that focus on personality development, personal care, and even mock interviews. 

Hiring PWDs shows that a business knows how to keep good people, that they can invest in this great pool of talent they have with them.

Those who weren’t able to enter wage employment are assessed and given opportunities to start small businesses. They encourage group businesses so as to establish their network in their own communities, incorporating what they have learned in their business development and financial management training.

LCPDF’s objective: Change the way you see disability

“People should have an inclusive mindset. We should not discriminate [against] people because of their disability. That’s the type of attitudinal barrier that we have to break. Companies really have to give opportunities to people with disabilities. It all starts with changing the mindset—let’s believe that they have abilities, then we give them opportunities and the right support,” says Borja.

It’s all about understanding what deafness is and what their identity is. Much like how we grew up not knowing that we are Filipinos until we entered school.

For her, if companies are able to unfold the full potential of PWDs, they’ll see that there are actually a lot of benefits in doing so. There will be low attrition rates as people with disabilities are very dedicated to their jobs. They know how hard it is to apply for a job and so they value every opportunity they are given. Hiring PWDs shows that a business knows how to keep good people, that they can invest in this great pool of talent they have with them.

WHY COMPANIES SHOULD HIRE PWD EMPLOYEES

The College of Saint Benilde (CSB) is the only university in Asia to offer a degree program in Deaf Studies. According to Oscar Sherlo Reyes, director of School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies’ Center for Partnership and Development, it’s all about understanding what deafness is and what their identity is. Much like how we grew up not knowing that we are Filipinos until we entered school.

The De La Salle College of Saint Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies conducted a seminar on labor laws and harassment in the workplace

There are three tracks that allow students to be employed: entrepreneurship, visual and graphic arts, and business outsourcing management. It’s part of their partnership with organizations to model their curriculum according to the demands of the industry. This secures the students’ qualifications once they apply for jobs.

“Your company may be diverse, but never inclusive. There could be a lot of PWD employees in the company, but if they don’t feel that they are valued back, that’s nothing. It’s more of providing opportunities regardless of who you are,” says Reyes.

“We really journey with the companies and we’re not promising heavens. When they hire the deaf, it’s not going to be easy. We have to be transparent with them. The learning curve will be quite steep, especially if they don’t know sign language yet. But once they surpass that learning curve, [things] become natural for the company and the deaf can easily communicate with the workers already,” says Reyes.

Students under their program undergo life skills training in preparation for their life as part of the labor force after they graduate

As Reyes explains, hiring PWDs allows companies to expand their market. It doesn’t only allow them to understand the hearing market, but it now expands to the PWD community as a consumer market because there are more and more PWD who are professionals. This gives employers better perspective and ideas that encourage them to be more progressive. 

It’s about learning  the kind of strategic thinking that lets you solve problems on your own rather than just demanding solutions.

“Your company may be diverse, but never inclusive. There could be a lot of PWD employees in the company, but if they don’t feel that they are valued back, that’s nothing. It’s more of providing opportunities regardless of who you are,” says Reyes.

Reyes cautions that empowerment can be misunderstood. PWDs, even ordinary persons, could misconceive  empowerment as entitlement. To be clear: Empowerment is advocating for your rights and independence, not simply expecting what is due to them. It’s about learning  the kind of strategic thinking that lets you solve problems on your own rather than just demanding solutions.

RISING THROUGH THE RANKS

Instead of creating separate concepts that are each helpful, trending, and refreshing, Francis Carl Reyes, chief executive officer of Caravan Food Group Inc., decided to put up an establishment that embodied all three values. He recalls a time in which, as a teenager, he visited a store where all the employees weren’t minding him—except for one deaf employee.

“Of all the people in that shop, it was one deaf guy who really showed me the epitome of customer service. He went above and beyond the difficult. And then I left the shop. I didn’t really buy anything, but what I took home was that these people are nice. I wanted to recreate this experience in this concept and so I decided to hire deaf people. I wanted everyone to feel the warmth and [realize] how capable these deaf people are,” says Francis.

According to him, there were lots of organizations catering to the PWD that didn’t take them seriously because at that time, there weren’t any concepts like his. There were others who were also cautious because when they partnered with other establishments, there were instances when the PWD employees were taken advantage of.

“Their productivity is really high compared to those who don’t really appreciate the job. They really take care of you and the company,” adds marketing manager Kristine Francisco.

Most of their shops are managed entirely by deaf employees; even those with down syndrome are with them as well. He notes that 80 percent of their company are PWD employees. Francis feels that he was successful in recreating the experience he had as a teenager because their customers were able to feel the same warmth and inspiration.

They also have two marketing assistants, a first from CSB’s Deaf Studies graduates, in their team as well as in the commissary. CFGI makes it a point to assign them the tasks of a marketing assistant such as working on certain reports and working in different departments. It isn’t just front of the house work anymore, they are also given the opportunity to work inside the office.

“Their productivity is really high compared to those who don’t really appreciate the job. They really take care of you and the company,” adds marketing manager Kristine Francisco.

Like any other person, they can contribute to the F&B industry and create even more of an impact.

Currently, CFGI provides leadership training centered on providing good customer service. They also have review on inventory management and quality control—they are looking forward to promoting their PWD employees to supervisors, managers, and human resources officers. For them, their employees aren’t only there as service crew. They have the potential to rise through the ranks.

“They feel welcome in the branch because they are not the only PWD. That’s sometimes the case when companies hire PWD employees, they feel out of place or that they don’t belong. Here, we make sure that they [feel that they] belong here,” says Francis.

“They’re really fit for the job as front liners of the F&B industry,” Francis explains.

No matter what their job is, as Francis sees it, their employees will always take care of the business because they treat it as their home, appreciating every opportunity given to them and having the kind of loyalty you can’t easily find elsewhere. Like any other person, they can contribute to the F&B industry and create even more of an impact.

“They’re really fit for the job as front liners of the F&B industry. What the company has to do though is to make sure that they have a system to accommodate the PWDs on how they will be able to do that job. It’s really up to the company to make it work and have the will to do so,” Francis explains.

CHALLENGING THE SPECTRUM

At 9 o’clock in the morning, Gian Carlo opened the doors of Pancake House and greeted me warmly. I told him I was going to be the one to interview him during his break time. As he guided me to a booth (waiting for me was the president of Autism Society Philippines (ASP), Mona Magno Veluz), I noticed him take out a piece of paper, which I watched him read carefully. I guess I wasn’t the only one who was looking forward to this interview after all.

Gian Carlo is the first employee in the spectrum to be hired by Max’s Group Inc.

Carlo is the first employee with autism spectrum disorder to be hired by MGI. He started working as a crew member in Pancake House last October 2019. Prior to that, ASP helped him land a job in SM Market as a retail sales associate and in COMELEC as a clerk for the Overseas Workers Division.

“My experience in SM Market is fun and exciting. The tasks that I did are cleaning up the shelves, putting items in their proper places, folding some clothes, going to the redemption area so that when the customer comes in they will claim the items, and greeting customers. My recent task was bagging,” says Carlo. 

He works at Pancake House as a crew member, greeting guests happily and bussing tables for them

That was the first question that wasn’t included in the list I sent prior to the interview. He was sure and passionate about sharing his experience in his previous jobs that he didn’t even bother to check if it was included in the script he had at hand.

He studied Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management and had his on-the-job training in a shipping company and a hotel. Being particularly interested in cooking, he usually prepares his specialty dishes for his family and friends. This includes sisig, turbo-broiled chicken, and other Western cuisine delicacies. 

“I would like to tell other autistic adults that they can work and earn a living with the help of a support system like our parents and family, our job coaches, advocacy organizations like the Autism Society Philippines and employers like Pancake House. We need to work hard and continue to believe in our potential to be successful. When I make mistakes, I just try harder to do things correctly, focus on my job and believe in myself,” says Gian Carlo.

At Pancake House, he’s situated at the front of the house. He goes into detail about the flow of his daily work life, from greeting customers, bussing tables, and cleaning up once everything is done. He points out that his main difficulty is to wake up early as he had to adjust for his 6 a.m. shift. In terms of working with the other employees, he didn’t really have much problem with them.

Gian Carlo started working under MGI last October 2019. Prior to this, he has had work experience with other establishments such as the SM Market and the COMELEC.

“They [co-workers] are very patient with me. I learned a lot of things from them and they help me with my work. The Autism Society Philippines held training with the store managers to teach them how to best help workers on the autism spectrum be more successful. I think that helped,” Carlo explains.

“We need to work hard and continue to believe in our potential to be successful. When I make mistakes, I just try harder to do things correctly, focus on my job and believe in myself,” says Carlo.

Customers are very friendly with him and he prides on the commendation letter he received, which describes the food and service he provides to be of great quality.

“I am happy to be the first person on the autism spectrum that Pancake House accepted as an employee. I am glad they will hire more in other branches. I would like to tell other autistic adults that they can work and earn a living with the help of a support system like our parents and family, our job coaches, advocacy organizations like the Autism Society Philippines and employers like Pancake House. We need to work hard and continue to believe in our potential to be successful. When I make mistakes, I just try harder to do things correctly, focus on my job and believe in myself,” says Carlo.

The kind of confidence Carlo has in himself is proof that there shouldn’t be a barrier between PWDs and the professional industry. Exceeding expectations, consistently delivering, and passionately working are among their characteristics most often overlooked by the society. But if that’s the case, what’s stopping the industry from hiring as many of them as they can?

As far as I’ve seen, they’re the most abled people I know. 

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