By CATHERINE RIUNGU
The presence of sign language interpreters all over the farm will make it easier for the deaf to work more efficiently
Oserian Development Company has been picked as a model for workplace inclusivity by the International Labor Organization (ILO). This comes a few months after the company won the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) Employer of the Year Awards 2019 for workplace inclusivity.
This means Oserian will be used as a showcase in a programme introduced by ILO in Nakuru and Narok counties to demonstrate the process and policy of giving Persons Living with Disabilities equal opportunities at the workplace as well as integrating them within the larger community.
This week, some of the firm’s staff were awarded a diploma in Kenya Sign Language after being trained by tutors from the University of Nairobi under the Kenya Sign Language Research Project, the first in a series of trainings to improve better working relations with their hearing impaired colleagues.
The project was sponsored by Fair trade, after a needs assessment identified improving communication among the deaf as a priority. Oserian has about 80 deaf employees, hired and trained as part of the company’s affirmative action. According to Administration Director Mary Kinyua, the deaf are among the most productive workers. “ Our special staff give all their attention to work, and the team has continuously produced the best employee of the year for the longest time”, she said.
Among the departments set to improve service to the deaf employees are the health where patients have been going through an interpreter, and this was seen as intrusion to caregiver –patient privacy. With training of health personnel in sign language interpretation, patients will no longer feel exposed. In addition, patients can get their diagnosis and prescriptions explained instead of relying on interpreters who are not in the health department.
Ms Kinyua explained the trainees underwent a strict vetting process with interviews conducted by the deaf workers. “They were assessing their interest and rapport with them. We seek to have a ratio of 1:2 in reference to our hearing impaired colleagues so that every time a deaf person turns, they can have someone who can communicate to them efficiently so they feel part of the Oserian Community.”
Mr Jeff Omweri, the University of Nairobi trainer, pointed out that the sign language interpreters at work remains a challenge, and there is need for employers to embrace the practice to motivate the impaired to apply for work and be able to discharge their duties. He added the private sector and government have a responsibility to enact a policy to include the practice at the workplace as part of eradicating discrimination on physical ability grounds as enshrined in the constitution to accord all citizens equal opportunities. He hailed ODC for facilitating the communication, citing that it opens up
space for the deaf and also for the interpreters who can seek jobs in other organizations to offer the vital service.
“There is a big disconnect between the deaf in major companies. The training will help the deaf not only access many facilities but also improve their relations. We have seen cases where the deaf end up getting wrong services especially in big companies. Not many organizations have thought of issuing such a life skill to their workers,” he noted with a tinge of sadness.
The chairperson of the Special Interest Group at Oserian, Simon Kanjui, hailed the initiative, pointing out that it will help ease the communication gap that existed before. Kanjui, who is deaf, pointed out that the presence of the interpreters all over the farm will make it easier for the deaf to work more efficiently and integrate with the community. “We are very many deaf people located in the green houses and the pack house. More interpreters also mean we are able to ask for clarification and advise from our other colleagues. This is a very positive move,” he added.
Rebecca Ingasian, a grandaunt, pointed out that most of the deaf isolated and kept to themselves.
“Lack of communication forced them to retrieve to their own cocoon. They could not talk and interact with fellow workers. Now their circle of friends is growing bigger,” she added.
The Chairman of Fair trade Michael Kibet said they would train more workers and advance the skills of those already trained to enhance qualifications for better opportunities in the labour market.
Oserian award winning deaf workers program
Immediately a motorist enters the gates of flower grower Oserian development Company, in Naivasha, a clear speed limit sign of 40Kph is the first visible thing after the security check. The main reason for the limit is to avoid accidents because the farm employs deaf workers who cannot hear the sound a moving vehicle.
How did the deaf find the farm?
When Catherine Atieno was told of a flower farm based in Naivasha that was hiring deaf workers, she embarked on the long journey from Siaya in Western Kenya to try her luck. She had suffered discrimination as a deaf with potential employers snubbing her immediately they realized she couldn’t hear.
Open to all possibilities she arrived at the Oserian Development Company front office desk without an appointment but was pleasantly surprised when she was warmly received by staff who could communicate in sign language. Administration director Mary Kinyua says although the farm doesn’t attend to visitors without prior appointment, the deaf have an exception. “We don’t turn back any deaf person who comes here looking for employment”, she said.
The 26 year- old Catherine immediately felt at home as she explained the purpose of her visit. She had been referred by a deaf friend and was looking for an opportunity. Six years down the line she hasn’t stopped smiling and vividly remembers her journey as a fresh high school graduate that landed her at Oserian where she works in the flower farm’s pack house.
“I live a comfortable life and can provide food, clothes and shelter for my four-year-old son,” she said. “In the village, when they realized I was deaf, I was ignored and people refrained from employing me for fear I would under perform. In fact, most companies shunned us claiming that we would be a bother due to the communication challenge. However, the quality of our work has proven them wrong,” she added.
Catherine is among some 70 deaf workers at Oserian in the various departments of the expansive farm that has employed about 4,500 people. The special workers play a crucial role in value chain of the one million stems the company exports every day, as an all-inclusive employer. Employing the deaf was cited by the Kenya Federation of Employers when Oserian emerged as the winner in the Responsible Business Conduct and Inclusivity and Diversity categories, rubber stamping the farm’s commitment to people and planet through sustainable flower growing practices, investment in staff welfare and contribution to a fairer world where the disabled are accorded opportunities at the workplace.
Zavedi Kagoki, 46, and Charles Kamunyu,52, a deaf couple, have worked in the farm for more than 15 years. Kagoki works in the packaging department while Kamunyu is in the building department. Kagoki said the company has given them an opportunity to live normal lives
Kagoki added that many had initially suffered from low self-esteem due to their condition but were now comfortable. “They gave us the opportunity to understand that even though we are different we have something important to offer to the world,” she added. Their four children are being educated by the Oserian. “Our first born who is currently in high school has been fully sponsored by the company,” said Kamunyu.
Doris Atieno, who has worked at the farm for six years said the lack of papers did not hinder the company from employing them. “Most companies shun away deaf people because of their economic credentials yet many are too poor to further their education. Oserian did not insist on academic papers but instead gave us the opportunity to work”, she added.
Ms Kinyua said they work with one accord paying full attention to their work. They don’t talk or hear so they work fully with little distractions like gossip”, Mary said with admiration and pride adding that they place a premium on their jobs knowing it’s not easy for them to secure employment.
Most of the deaf workers are in the pack house where they grade flowers. According to Mary, flowers are delicate and require a special touch, the station doesn’t involve lots of movement making it easier for them to work. “We try to make their lives as easy as possible, reason we also house them in the company estate,” She said.
The oldest one has served in the company for 15 years and has scooped the best employee award for 13 consecutive years. They are an integral part of us and we include them in every way possible,” she said adding the deaf corner produces the best workers every year.
“Their passion and zeal is amazing as most want to further their education despite many of them having basic certificates only,”she added. She added that most of the deaf were recruited on recommendation basis by their colleagues.
To improve communications, the farm is training more sign language interpreters, and the deaf no longer wear deaf signs like before. Wearing the signs was considered discriminative creating need for more sign language interpreters based in every department Ms Kinyua said the farm is rolling out training of all departmental heads to ease communications and protect the privacy of the dead workers. The deaf are represented in all farm committees like gender, Fair trade and social welfare programmes. Mary disclosed these workers are in the process of setting up income generating projects to diversify income through Fair trade premiums and cooperative loans. “We are an ethical company and we believe in giving an equal opportunity to all people as part of our affirmative action.” she added.
Mary throws banter to employers to create opportunities for special needs people as a policy. “This is one of the most rewarding ways to improve the society,” she says.
By Catherine Riungu / firstname.lastname@example.org