How inclusive is the Philippine workforce? When it comes to persons with disabilities (PWDs), specifically the hard-of-hearing community, that becomes a complicated question to answer.

The deaf are a part of the Philippine workforce, and the law recognizes this. Republic Act 7277 states that the private sector plays a role in promoting the welfare of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) and requires PWDs be given equal opportunities for employment. Republic Act 10524 calls businesses to reserve at least one percent of their positions for PWDs.

However, there’s still much to be done in turning legislation into reality. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are 26.8 million unemployed Filipinos, with a large number being PWDs. To that end, some firms — like Helping Hands Cafe and Fruitas — have taken it upon themselves to jumpstart the integration of the deaf in the workplace.

Lending a hand

Since opening Helping Hands Cafe in 2015, Lorie Anthony Ortiaga committed his business to hiring and empowering deaf workers. A former teacher handling 30 children with disabilities, Ortiaga was forced to retire in 2015 when he suffered a mild heart attack and was diagnosed with lateral ischemia.

Refusing to end his advocacy of helping PWDs, he opened and managed the cafe’s first branch along Taft Avenue. When the branch closed, Cez Diamse, a DLSU alumnae who shared Ortiaga’s advocacy, took over as the company’s president. Since then, Diamse expanded the business with two more branches — in Makati and in Ortiaga’s native Antique.

Since many of the deaf workers at Helping Hands had never worked in food service before joining the cafe’s team, more experienced staff members train them on the job.

Joshua Mariveles, barista and cook, said it was initially a challenge interacting with his deaf co-workers. “At first, we had no idea on how to use sign language, so we couldn’t communicate properly,” he said. But with a little patience on the part of his deaf teachers, he eventually picked up signing the alphabet, and later on communicating through sign language.

In return, Mariveles and the other, more experienced employees taught them the ins and outs of cooking and serving, which they took on with gusto. “They asked us to teach them when there’s free time,” Mariveles said. “They watched at first, then then they tried to do what they just saw.” He shared how one of their cooks — a deaf employee — started off silently observing, and now helps develop entire recipes for the cafe.

Shaking up the status quo

And while Helping Hands Cafe began with the advocacy at its core, Fruitas Holdings, Inc.’s support of the PWD community began by chance — with a resume passed in 2007 by a deaf applicant. The applicant was deemed qualified, and subsequently hired. Since then, Fruitas has gone on to employ 41 employees with disabilities — 32 of which are deaf and hard-of-hearing — in both corporate and service departments.

“We just treated everyone like everyone else, and we saw that they do have the potential,” said Teresa Trujillo, Fruitas’ human resources director. “Even our evaluation processes didn’t change, and they passed the evaluation.”

The team, however, admits that there are internal challenges to an otherwise fantastic practice. Some of their store managers, for example, hesitate to hire deaf employees because of the glaring communication gap it introduces to their team.

So, to address these concerns, the company decided to bridge it.

In August, they partnered with Unilab Foundation to launch a series of workshops on basic sign language and workplace inclusivity and sensitivity. Immediate superiors of employees with disabilities are required to participate and help cascade learnings to the rest of their team.

Training Director Chermaine Laceda said this is par for the course in creating an inclusive workplace. Just as they adjust to communicate with their hearing co-workers, “we also need to step-up our skills to communicate with them,” she said.

‘Just like us’

Fully embracing PWDs in the workplace opens up many new possibilities for its employees. “There’s more collaboration, more opinions are shared, and you see different perspectives,” Laceda said. “This makes the company’s culture more sustainable.”

“They’re just like us,” Mariveles said. “They just can’t communicate with us verbally. But everything that a ‘normal’ person can do, they can do.”