Face value

At Mumbai’s first hearing and speech-impaired staffed salon, the team stops at nothing to give us the best facial. And no, they didn’t know we were press

Face value

Speaking staff undertakes tasks such as haircuts where the client gives constant input that can be difficult for a hearing-impaired staffer. Pics/Sameer Markande

After setting up Mirchi and Mime outlets, a restaurant chain manned by hearing and speech impaired staff, entrepreneurs Raja Sekhar Reddy and Shishir Gorle set up the Eklavya Foundation in 2019. The non-profit offers vocational training in logistics, beauty, skin, and hair care to the deaf and mute. After three months of training, the ‘graduates’ were assessed by Lakmé and Enrich chain of salons and found to be at par with professionals in the game.

“But they could hire only one or two,” says Reddy, when we meet him after having conducted an anonymous test drive at the Andheri East-located parlour the previous day. “Some even got placements in Amazon and Nature’s Basket in the logistics wing, but we had realised that although these companies have the right intent, they don’t have the right environment. A single specially-abled person is isolated in the work place. And it would have been wrong to expect the companies to hire more than they needed to.”

Each staffer wears a shirt indicating their proficiency with <a href=sign language. Some say ‘I am learning sign language’” width=”1280″ height=”720″ layout=”responsive”/>
Each staffer wears a shirt indicating their proficiency with sign language. Some say ‘I am learning sign language’

So, by 2020, they launched Mirror and Mime with nine specially-abled staff and six speaking staffers that liaison between the customers and them. After having run Mirchi and Mime and Madeira and Mime, in Powai, for seven years, Reddy knew what works and doesn’t. “They don’t learn by logic; they learn by repeating a process until it becomes memory,” he explains. “They have trust issues, thinking everyone will take advantage of them. They are also a bit entitled, believing that things should be handed to them. It’s a problem society and caregivers have created—we overprotect and infantilise them with, ‘No, no, you won’t be able to do this…’. So disciplinary measures are taken personally. If we dock a staffer’s pay for coming late, s/he will assume it’s because s/he is deaf. We have to explain that any staffer’s pay would be docked for non-punctuality. Sometimes, we even have to deal with them like we do with school children. Send a note to their mothers, call the parent over and explain the discipline issue. One mother gave her child a dressing down.”

I, of course, knew nothing of this when I booked an appointment the previous day for a facial with Shital. I was at the Chandivli outlet, and while Yashoda offered to provide the service, I requested one of the specially-abled staffers to work on us. “They are good,” she told us, “But a little nervous.” She handed me a bell to press in case I faced a communication gap that would require an interpreter.

Nine hearing-and-speech-impaired aestheticians work with six speaking section heads, who act as interpreters
Nine hearing-and-speech-impaired aestheticians work with six speaking section heads, who act as interpreters

I don’t speak sign language, and the back of Shital’s uniform said, she is learning it; some others have “I speak sign language. What’s your superpower?” embroidered on the back of their shirts. But I need not have worried. Shital was proficient in understanding my gestures, and expressions, and there was really not much to say. If there was to be a conversation about what would suit me, Yashoda would have held it. Shital pointed out the service I had requested (Remy Laure Facial for hydrating and plumping), with a kneading gesture with thumbs out, indicating that it would include deep pressure. There was no reason to use the bell all through the service. The only times we communicated was when I told her someone was knocking on the door, and that she should turn off the overflowing tap. She was immediately in control and did not need my intervention.

“There is one speaking Section Head with three non-speaking/hearing staffers [in the hair, beauty and skin department],” explains Reddy about the structure of the workforce. “There are some services they do not undertake, such as hair-cutting, since we realised that customers like to give constant inputs, which can confuse them. But they execute hair dyeing and washing, manicures and pedicures and most other services, independently.”

All the staffers are trained by the NGO Eklavya, and are employed at Mirror and Mime, or equipped for home service
All the staffers are trained by the NGO Eklavya, and are employed at Mirror and Mime, or equipped for home service

Meanwhile, Shital is giving me one of the best massages I have had at a beauty salon. The pressure is evenly applied, the strokes are slow and relaxing, and she firmly holds my head and turns it rhythmically side-to-side to catch the steam. The process is calming with the absence of verbal up-selling, which usually begins with pointing all ways in which the customer is deteriorating her way to the crematorium (“Ma’am, your skin is too dry, too tanned, try the gold leaf facial,” etc).

With the face pack applied, Shital moves her attention to my hands, feet and back. Now it’s hedonistic. As she massages a sunscreen into the skin, I motion that it may interfere with the next service. She nods, “no”.

After the facial, we move on to the trial-by-fire: Threading the eyebrows. I gesture what I want (mow above and between the brows, leave everything under the brow-bone alone). Shital nods and gets to work. She’s gentle and thorough, and worth making the trip from Navi Mumbai to Chandivli.

All the ‘…And Mime’ enterprises are in response to community leaders requesting Reddy and Gorle to create more jobs for the hearing and speech impaired. Jobs that lead to careers and are not in the back office where they are hidden. Eklavya Foundation also equips its graduates with a basic hair and skin kit so that they can undertake personal orders at a customer’s home.

One of the queer things Reddy has had to tackle is a waiter saying, just as he was taking a dish over to a table, that he wanted to eat it. Right on the spot. “We had to explain to him patiently, that that’s just not done,” says Reddy. Since then, the waiters at Powai’s Mirchi and Mime are held to the highest standard and 100 per cent of the table staff is speech-impaired.

If Mirror and Mime goes the same way, it would be no challenge at all; gold star services all the way.

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