P Jesuraja is usually the first one to arrive at his workplace, ‘Café Able,’ in the Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu.
Ten years ago, the he 38-year-old’s life came to a standstill after he lost his right leg in an accident. He was unable to find any employment due to his physical impairment, and while he tried to run a small-time photocopy business, it barely made any profit.
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On July 7 this year, his decade-long struggle seemingly came to an end, when he finally found a job cleaning and cutting vegetables at the café, where he earns a stable income and is not subjected to pitying glances.
Jesuraja is one of the twelve differently-abled people, who have found employment in Café Able. Eleven of them have locomotor disabilities, and one is hearing impaired. They have been hired for various posts including head chef, juice master, tea master, billing clerk, and so on.
Sandeep Nanduri, the District Collector (DC) of Thoothukudi, is the brains behind this idea.
I would frequently receive petitions for jobs from the differently-abled, but it wasn’t possible to provide government jobs to everyone. So, we decided to enable them to run their own venture and came up with the idea of opening a café, Nanduri tells The Better India.
The DC first formed a Self-Help Group comprising of people with disabilities who had requested him for a job.
Then, he collaborated with the Oscar Hotel Management college in Rajapalayam, and enrolled them in a 45-day training course in cooking, catering and baking. The ‘Dream Team’ was also taught how to handle customers, what to do during a crisis, how to manage finances, and so on.
Meanwhile, the café, which is located inside the premises of District Collectorate, was constructed through CSR funds obtained by three private companies and the money raised by the district administration. The employees are not expected to pay monthly rent for the land as the aim is to make it self-sustaining.
Café Able is equipped with the latest kitchen and baking necessities. From a delicious South Indian breakfast, lunch and dinner, hot beverages to juices, it offers an array of food items at reasonable rates.
To further break stereotypes around disabilities, Nanduri often holds discussions and meetings at the cafe. “We also order food items for staff meetings from there and encourage district officials to dine there.”
This has led to an increase in the customer base, and the café earns around Rs 10,000 daily. Half of the profits are deposited in the bank from where their salaries are generated, and the rest are used to shop for ingredients.
It has been a little over a month, and the café is thriving, which is, in a way a step towards inclusivity and acceptance, believes the DC.
There was some initial hand-holding required, but soon, the employees were able to manage and run the cafe on their own. Today, hundreds of people visit the café daily; the lunch hour is usually the busiest time for them.
Nanduri has also recorded a change in the attitude of the employees, and that for him is the biggest achievement. “I remember when the training commenced, they were very low on confidence and scared of failure. Today, I can see a drastic change in their behaviour. Their fears have been replaced by a sense of conviction to succeed in the venture.”
Note: All photographs courtesy Sandeep Nanduri
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)