The blind boy who dreamt of being a cook

In 1987, back when I was managing a hotel in Ottawa, Canada, we were approached by an institution for the blind and asked if we could take on someone named Fred and give him work in the kitchen.

We were all a bit taken aback. How could a blind man work in the kitchen, we thought? But we were told Fred had always dreamt of being a cook, it was all he wanted to do and could we try it out for a month?

“Please make his dream come true,” we were asked.

How could we refuse?

Our chief butcher volunteered to be the team leader and Fred, with his minder’s help, slowly found his way round the back of the house and his way to the kitchen. He was trained and given repetitive tasks – peeling eggs, chopping, laying bacon. The team got used to Fred and welcomed him as one of them.

The experience also fostered pride and a sense of achievement among the entire hotel workforce.

A month passed. Fred wanted to stay on. For the first time in his life, he had earned a pay cheque which he sent to his parents in Newfoundland. He looked so proud in his chef’s uniform. When I left the hotel a couple of years later, Fred was still working in the kitchen.

Fred opened my eyes to a new vision – that personally, in my career, I would do what I can to employ disabled wherever I was and that one day, when the time is right, I would try and do something on a bigger scale about the employment of disabled by the hotel industry at large.

Even as we complain about lack of staff, it seems to me we are ignoring a critical and valuable segment of our society. And it’s always bothered me as to why we don’t open our doors wider to those who may be physically challenged but are fully capable of doing certain jobs?

For example, at the front desk, we have staff standing around. Why can’t we have staff in wheelchairs? There are those who think this may upset the guests – when they see a handicapped person at the front desk. But perhaps it’s not the guest we really worry about but the inconvenience to us.

A mindset change is required and this is the right time for us to do something about it.

The first thing we should do is determine departments and positions suitable for different disabilities.

For example:

  • Hearing/speech impaired – laundry operators, maintenance technicians, housekeepers, public area cleaners, storeroom attendants, accountants
  • Visually impaired – commie cooks to carry out repetitive tasks (peeling eggs, chopping, laying bacon), spa therapists
  • Reduced mobility – front office agents, concierges, telephone operators, reservations agents, service call centre agents, office work, accounting, secretarial, management
  • Paraplegic – working from home in jobs with PC/headset requirements such as research or even telemarketing.

The challenges are numerous.

  • Lack of back of house facilities for the physically handicapped
  • Lack of investments in equipment
  • Lack of awareness and sensitivity within the work place
  • Lack of government incentives
  • Lack of government regulation to provide for proper back of house facilities
  • Lack of training facilities and institutions specialized in this segment
  • Lack of peers/supervisors training to learn how to deal with the physically impaired

But the benefits are also numerous.

  • Support for an ignored segment of the society
  • Help to alleviate employee shortage
  • Recognition as a sensitive organization
  • Create a loyal workforce
  • Create a more caring and sensitive workplace and, by extension, society
  • Reduce unemployment levels
  • Help to reduce the financial burden on society

I still remember Fred’s smile when I returned to the hotel in Ottawa a year later after I left. He was standing at the staff entrance and when I greeted him, he, recognizing my voice, replied, “Mr Geday, how nice to see you.”

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