He gently smiles when we arrive and says something, probably in Xhosa. With my black Cranes jersey screaming ‘Uganda’, I wonder why he chose to communicate in a language he was sure I would not understand.
I present my hand for a handshake and with a beaming, sincere smile, he warmly grasps it. He takes my luggage and we go on to the reception but I love talking, so I keep yapping lots of things how we had an awesome journey, how I knew much about South Africa and how I was already deep in love with their hotel… yeah, I really talk too much.
Most of the times it is the only way I entice people to buy me free stuff or give me discounts. The fella is, however, not talking to me. In the elevator, now tired of pleasing his soul, I quietly imagined he, like most South Africans I had talked to, thought that Museveni’s little party paradise was located in northern Africa. These people!
On reaching my room, he gets my bags inside and again says a couple of things – this time round, they are clearer but still unintelligible. Then it dawns on me, he is trying to tell me he is deaf. It is even engraved on his shirt how had I missed that!
Come to think about it he has been trying to talk to me using sign language, but in my self-absorbed persona, I thought something was terribly wrong with his hands! I had assumed this was a hospitality business dealing with many people, so contemporary talking was a necessity. Well, I was dead wrong.
If Ugandan activists want to understand how to truly push the “disability is not inability” envelope, they need to visit Park Inn by Radisson, in Cape Town. The bellboy at my service, Mathews Nomvalo, is deaf but will make new guests feel welcome every time the Park Inn doors open.
The inn that opened its doors to the public at the end of last December, has not given Nomvalo alone this chance, but to 26 other deaf people. The deaf make up 25 per cent of the 105 employees that work here.
Their objective is to have 30 per cent deaf employees, which, according to publications such as SABC, Times Live and Think Stories, makes Park Inn the leading employer of deaf people in the world. What makes Park Inn special is the fact that these deaf employees are spread throughout the departments and not limited to being gardeners, janitors, cleaners and other lower ranks they compete fairly for jobs across the board.
According to Richard Mexson, the inn’s sales manager, they have deaf employees in finance, transport, front desk and room service, among other departments. On a good day, you will find Nomvalo waiting to usher in guests and on others you will find the likes of Andrew.
However, employing the deaf at Park Inn is no surprise the inn stands on ground that used to house the Deaf SA offices – an association of deaf societies in the country. After the business was completed, the managers along with Deaf SA thought it wise to let the deaf share the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts.
In fact, even a certain percentage of the profits go to Deaf SA. During my stay last month – I was in Cape Town for the annual jazz festival – the inn hosted an egg-painting challenge involving at least 40 deaf children from different schools around Cape Town.
An employee at Park Inn with two of the deaf kids
The deaf staff came in handy as they swiftly helped the children with many needs the other staff could not handle. But this has not come easy the hearing staff had to be trained on how to work with the deaf, as well as training the deaf on how to use easily understandable sign language with the guests.
“None of our deaf staff had worked in the hotel business before and some had not even worked at all,” Mexson says.
Using a mixture of sign language and writing, Nomvalo tells me he was trained for three months. Because they have deaf staff and anticipated deaf clients, Mexson says, there are plans to send their hearing team on a sign language course.
To ensure that the project runs smoothly, Mexson says they have hired an interpreter who helps in seeing that the deaf and hearing staffs get along even the key packs for guests have a basic sign language guide at the back.
Before joining Park Inn, Nomvalo was a teaching assistant at a school for children with impaired hearing. He took the job at Park Inn because he indeed loved dealing with and encouraging other people to learn.
He considers himself lucky that he has a job even with his disability, especially given the level of unemployment in the country, even for people without disabilities. Park Inn’s credit clerk Elzabe Van der Walt, for example, says she had to struggle for three years to find a job.
“In Cape Town you can’t easily find a job when you’re deaf it is really challenging,” says my tour guide Mario Jacobs.
It is not surprising that to hire the 27 employees, they had interviewed more than 150 deaf candidates. To get the clientele’s heavy demands, though, the deaf team puts in extra effort they are observant and try to read lips, body language or ask you to write things down if they are not sure of the order.
Nomvalo says they have had some challenges but have turned them around by involving the clientele.
“Some people can be impatient and speak so fast, making it hard to read their lips,” he notes.
In an interview with SABC TV, the hotel’s supervisor in charge of meetings and events, Dale Holmes, also one of the deaf staff, says communication is vital so, regardless of how some clients become impatient, he asks until he is sure he has got what they are saying perfectly.
“It is very difficult without hearing aids so, we try to do written communication, but for me I have hearing aid and I also train myself to try and speak clearly so to greet them and when guests see my ‘I am deaf’ badge, they are very accommodating and their attitudes gradually change.”
However, on an emotional note, Dale notes, “We lost our voices. We don’t even know what we sound like. We feel lost in the hearing world. So, we really want to teach our hearing colleagues a bit of sign language. We will catch up with [one another].”
In fact, when you show up, Park Inn is an ordinary hotel, but when you meet the deaf staff, your experience changes one of the guests joked that they are efficient since they won’t easily gossip about guests the way staff that hear do.
Mexson notes that hiring the deaf has come with dividends for instance, they have had a number of disabled travellers picking them over many other residential hotels in Cape Town. One of the Ugandan guests at the hotel notes that what Park Inn is doing is not only a challenge to South African hotels and other employers, but even those around Africa.
“When you think about it, many of these people can’t be employed in Uganda, yet they are doing a good job,” she says.
According to Mexson, the biggest lesson from all this has been not to judge a book by its cover and encourages people to dream on regardless of their disabilities.
“Nothing should hold people back they should not sit back and resign just because they are deaf.”
In fact, two days before our arrival, Mexson notes, one of the deaf staff had been promoted. Beautiful Cape Town may have its breathtaking sites such as Table Mountain, the passage to Robben Island and the amazing city, but on this trip what truly blew me away was the hotel I found myself staying at.
Source : The Observer