There’s a lot of camaraderie in the cabin that functions as the workspace for members of Enable – the Desert Group’s CSR wing for individuals with disabilities at the sprawling Wahat Al Sahraa Nurseries in Khawaneej. Saif, who easily stands a head taller than the rest of his peers, playfully ruffles Tariq’s hair as the latter cleans the small ceramic pot in front of him in earnest. When CEO Michael Mascarenhas – who seems to know most of his employees by name – calls for a group photo, everyone huddles around, arms flung around each other’s shoulders, flashing the three-finger salute made popular by His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. “Our happiness quotient is pretty high here,” Michael laughs.
This much is easy to see, but as the group breaks up and the boys return to their work, he also talks about what it took to bring the unit to this point. “In a business environment, to push a social agenda is almost like an oxymoron, since you either have a profit-driven company or you focus on society,” Michael says. When Enable started in 2006, it was with the aim of empowering individuals with disabilities to achieve financial independence – something people weren’t even talking about in society. With communities reluctant to employ them, young people with special needs were graduating from their schools, only to return home and inevitably become a burden for families. “My philosophy is that we are all uniquely abled,” Michael explains. “Sometimes, we are able to identify our abilities ourselves; other times, we need somebody to draw them out. But everyone has talent.”
Members of the Enable team working on decorative cacti arrangements (on display, far right)
Today, Enable has about 32 members, each engaged in a variety of activities around the nurseries and earning salaries like the rest of their peers. Some are involved in producing the decorative range of cacti arrangements seen earlier in the workshop, using rustic or modern wood, or ceramic and glass planters. All revenue generated by the sale of these products is invested back into the unit’s operations in an attempt to make it self-sustaining – with 15 per cent of sales going back to the employee who produced it. Others, meanwhile, are involved in sales – interacting with customers and identifying scores of plant species in the nursery (there are about 1,200 beautiful varieties out here) to help them find what they’re looking for – while others help manage the team in more supervisory roles. “It’s a really difficult task because it’s a continuous process, but we’re grateful to be able to do what we do with these guys,” says Michael. “To be able to train them to become equal members of society is very empowering.”
Therapist Ibrahim Ali Mohammed Ali has been working closely with the Enable team for the last five years. “In the beginning, it was very challenging,” he recalls. “Some of the guys refused to work or even sit down; they’d use abusive language. We would record their behaviour on a daily basis and slowly work to change it. Now, their negative behaviour has been converted into positive skills,” he says with some pride. “They have a new sense of life.”
It’s not only the team’s mentality that has changed. Ibrahim says that they’re now also changing the way people think, through the live demonstrations and workshops they offer at schools around the city. “People are understanding that people with disabilities can also do [things],” he says.
While the success of the programme is one they wish to capitalise on, Michael says they must proceed with caution. The road to transformation is a difficult one, he notes. “When Saif first came to us, he was very aggressive. You couldn’t talk to him. He would grunt and get very boisterous. So, we had to address those issues first, then teach him to become part of the team and teach him to perform a job. It takes a year or more, and it’s a whole process for each individual. So while I wish we could do more – and we are committed to doing so – we must do so carefully.”
CEO of Desert Group, Michael Mascarenhas
In the meanwhile, advocacy is another area that Michael is just as equally committed to. “Only when we talk about what we’re doing will people be inspired to look for their own purpose in life,” he points out. “There are plenty of CEOs and leaders out there that could start up something of their own – or even team up with us. It’s about being part of society and taking up a cause to hone talent and channel it into something good. Right now, there’s just a lot of lip service in the marketplace.”
So what are the major concerns that keep businesses from hiring people with disabilities? “Two things,” says Michael. “We lack commitment. A value system starts from the top. If you have people who really believe in what they should be doing, they’ll do it. But if that belief system doesn’t exist, you’ll only talk about things, but never actually do anything about it.” There’s also the profit element, he adds. “The need to ‘deliver’ is so severe that if you start allocating resources into an area where there’s no visible return on investment, boards [of directors] aren’t going to be keen to further that cause.”
It’s a long-winded road, but Michael says his greatest fulfilment comes from seeing his employees happy. “You feel like you’re living life – not just doing ‘work’. As a CEO, when I go back home, that’s what makes me feel like it’s a job well done.”
Source: Khaleej Times