‘This place attracts special people’ | Sunday Observer

‘This place attracts special people’

Lalani Sanjeewani serves a customer
Lalani Sanjeewani serves a customer

Now, 12 out of 19 workers at the Pizza Hut in Colombo 5, a nice little structure safely tucked away in a corner in Siripa Road, have a unique story to tell the world - they all have hearing impairments. And they are all happily employed.

Kengatharam Prakash has an infectious smile plastered on his face as he walks into work. Clad in a t-shirt, pants and a cap - all colour coded black and red - he looks sharp and eager. Holding his palm across his forehead he signed to his colleagues, and they smiled back.

Hailing from a village in Jaffna 20-year-old Prakash, not knowing Sinhala and others around him struggling to put two words in Tamil together, he connects to his co-workers with one universal language- sign.

Prakash is the eldest in a family of four siblings. Living with hearing impairment, Prakash had to struggle against all odds to find a job. But today he is employed at the Pizza Hut in Colombo 5 and enjoys same rights and pay like any other employee. In the past seven months he was there, Prakash has mastered the Pizza station, Pasta table and even works at the cashier’s counter from time to time.

“I am very happy here,” Prakash says when the Sunday Observer dropped by at his work place. “When I go home (his father comes to take him home once a month) I take sweets and clothes for my mother and the others.” This makes Prakash very proud of himself.

Prakash is one of the lucky ones. Most often persons who are differently abled struggle to find employment in Sri Lanka. Parents of children with a disability resort to getting their children married early.

Dedicated outlet

Though the ‘dedicated outlet for People with Disabilities (PWDs)’ opened its doors to customers on November 5, 2018, its story began about a year before that when during a ‘brainstorming session’ of the employees, someone suggested training differently abled persons and absorbing them into the Pizza Hut outlets situated across the island.

Now, 12 out of 19 workers at the Pizza Hut in Colombo 5, a nice little structure safely tucked away in a corner in Siripa Road, have a unique story to tell the world - they all have hearing impairments. And they are all happily employed.

From that day the team who volunteered to make the project work had to work harder than they anticipated. They approached the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind, Ratmalana, and together with its Principal the journey began.

Bryan Gunarathne, an Executive Trainer at Pizza Hut, had to learn to sign himself before embarking on the project.

“Before starting the program, I thought it was rocket science and when I actually started working with the group I realised they were more observant and focused than others. They were very easy to train and work with,” Gunarathne said.

To make the work environment work-friendly for employees with hearing impairments new signs were introduced, menus were printed with larger pictures, and the manager and shift manager were trained to sign.

This could be the world’s first Pizza Hut outlet employing PWDs.

Learn to sign

The group has introduced signs such as ‘can I get the bill?’, ‘can I have a bag?’, and ‘is it more spicy or less?’, and even signs to ‘split the bill’, ask how the pizza is and to apologise for the delay.

Each table at the restaurant has leaflets for customers to learn to sign. Most who visit the restaurant sign to order. Lakdini Perera Herath, a mother of two from the area, visits the PWDs dedicated pizza hut outlet in Siripa Road with her two children. She has another Pizza Hut closer to her home but she prefers this one because it gives a rare opportunity to her children to familiarise with the sign language.

“This is a great experience for all of us , especially kids. My children like to come here because it is a different experience,” Herath said.

Seeing happy customers such as Herath and her kids motivates the little team at the dedicated outlet to work even harder. When 22-year-old Lalani Sanjeewani, from Bandarawela, smiles one could see the dimples in her cheeks. She lights up whenever a customer walks into the restaurant.

“Before this, I didn’t think I’ll be able to work. Even as a child I didn’t aspire to become anyone,” Sanjeewani said. Her mother is proud of what she is doing. Sanjeewani said that this makes her very happy.

Customers who come to the outlet are also mostly aware of its environment and is empathetic towards the special workers there. Shift Manager Irosh Kumara said sometimes when the waiter confuse drinks, the customers would accept what is given.

“When we understand that there has been a mix-up we would go to the customer to apologise and get the right drink they ordered and they always say they are happy with what they got.

This place attracts special people,” he said.

The initiative is welcomed by many including Human Rights Commission Chairman, Dr. Deepika Udagama. She said society has to recognise the potential of differently abled citizens and encourage them to work.

“Pizza Hut’s initiative is an excellent initiative. It sets an example to other employers,” Dr. Udugama stressed.

What started as a pilot project and a gift to the brand which completed 25 years in Sri Lanka in 2018, is now gradually growing, Human Resources Manager of Gama Pizza Kraft Lanka (Private) Limited, for Pizza Hut in Sri Lanka and Maldives, Kaushal Mendis said they hope to absorb more differently abled employees. The dedicated outlet will serve as a training hub.

Pix: Sarath Peiris