During her nearly two-decade-long career as a special education teacher in Mumbai and Hong Kong, Faride Shroff came to the realisation that many of her students have struggled to find work after graduating. Without any income, some of her former students have had to rely on their family or the government for support, which left them feeling depressed and hopeless.
Determined to change the situation, Shroff left teaching seven years ago to start SENsational Consultancy, a social enterprise in Hong Kong which dispels misconceptions about people with disabilities, provides corporate training on inclusivity, and offers pro-bono training for candidates with disabilities to help them thrive in a corporate setting.
SENsational has worked with many industry leaders such as HSBC, Bank of America, Colliers International, AXA, BNP Paribas and Skadden, among others. We speak with Shroff about her work, and why she believes it’s crucial for society to cultivate more inclusive work environments.
Ariana: Did you always want to become a teacher?
Faride Shroff: I actually always dreamt about becoming a teacher. When I was in secondary school, I started teaching young children in my neighbourhood and provided private tutoring sessions. At university in Mumbai, I studied education – that’s where I started training at a special-needs school on campus.
I remember those days fondly: The children would sit beside me and we’d chat, read stories and play games. It was the highlight of my day and it did not take long for me to realise that I wanted to devote my career to working with students with disabilities.
Ariana: What are a few highlights from your career?
FS: When I was teaching at Beacon Hill School in Hong Kong, I had the freedom to start new initiatives, which included early intervention programmes for infants and parents, and the inclusion of differently abled students in mainstream schools.
I also trained some of my students to participate in the US Special Olympics, where they won gold and silver medals in long distance running. Being an athlete myself, I would take the students to run after school and on the weekends. Seeing their determination and perseverance has greatly enriched my life.
I think that my work has also positively impacted my students, as I have helped them build self-confidence and taught them to remain positive. I also often speak with parents to give them a chance to express their feelings freely and discuss the challenges they might be facing.
Ariana: In Hong Kong, what have you observed about the attitude towards people with special needs?
FS: There is certainly a lack of awareness in Hong Kong and Asia-Pacific, in general. Most of this stems from ignorance, fear, a lack of understanding, cultural bias, and not having the opportunity to interact closely with people with disabilities.
Often, people are willing to make charitable donations for people with disabilities, but they look at them with pity and don’t have a lot of interaction. This is not what they want. People with disabilities want – and deserve – to be an integral part of our society with mutual respect and equal rights.
Ariana: What led you to start SENsational Consultancy?
FS: I have always felt a deep connection with my students. Even after they have graduated, I try to maintain relationships with them and do what I can to help them succeed. When hearing from former students, I noticed that many were battling depression, in addition to their own physical and psychological challenges, because they couldn’t find work and contribute to society.
At that time, about seven years ago, I realised that no one in Hong Kong was working to help people with disabilities enter the workforce and educate society about the importance of inclusion. I wanted to build those bridges – that’s why I founded SENsational Consultancy, “SEN” standing for “Special Employment Needs.”
Ariana: What does SENsational Consultancy do?
FS: Our mission is to create an equal and inclusive working environment and society for all. By raising awareness and sensitising members of society, we hope that differently abled workers can better integrate into the workforce, showcase their unique talents and add value to the company.
To fulfill this goal, we provide customised corporate training programmes and, in the future, we will work with corporates to hire people with disabilities. We will also offer pro-bono, one-on-one support for candidates with disabilities to ensure a smooth and successful transition into the corporate workforce.
Ariana: What were the biggest obstacles when you first started in 2013?
FS: First, I had to adapt to a new role. Having been a teacher for so many years, I had no idea how to run a business. Creating equal opportunities for everyone seemed like such a simple plan.
But it wasn’t that easy. To achieve this goal, I realised that I would have to change a deep-rooted unconscious bias in society, which is very difficult. It was hard at first – a lot of companies cancelled on us or had a dismissive attitude in those early days.
It’s gotten easier, as many companies have started to see the overwhelmingly positive impact of an inclusive workforce. We are very pleased with the gradual shift in our society towards inclusivity and open dialogues regarding disabilities.
Ariana: How do you work with corporations on inclusivity?
FS: We are continuously working to change misconceptions about disabilities as well as help companies employ differently abled workers by providing simple yet effective solutions. The first and most important solution is to dispel misconceptions about hiring persons with disabilities through practical workshops and training sessions, which we give to corporate employees and hiring managers.
Other simple solutions include offering technological support – such as a larger display screen or special applications – to a person with visual impairment. Simple hearing aids and text messages could be used for people with hearing impairments.
Ariana: Why is it important to cultivate a more inclusive workforce?
I truly believe that it is important for all companies to gain a competitive edge by being more inclusive. People often focus more on the “dis” rather than the “abilities.”
For example, many people are unaware that technology can help a visually impaired person read, or that a physically challenged person can drive a car, swim or take part in a marathon. We need to change our perceptions to advance society as a whole.
Ariana: Can you share a success story?
FS: In one instance, we helped a young lady who was suffering from acute depression. She was unable to find a job despite all her efforts and felt like a burden on her parents. Through coaching, mentoring and training with SENsational, she felt empowered to continue her job search.
After she found the right job, she worked at the company diligently for several years. Having this success in her life boosted her confidence and self-worth, and she became a much happier person because she felt included in society. It also changed the way her family, friends and co-workers viewed her.
Ariana: What’s next for SENsational?
FS: We want it to be a win-win situation for all stakeholders. In our 10-year plan, we would like to work with more companies in Asia-Pacific and represent Hong Kong as a leading specialist in disability inclusion globally.
We would also like to work with the Hong Kong government to make our city more accessible for people with disabilities. Eventually, I would like to build a residential space for candidates with disabilities to be able to live and work independently.
By The Numbers
The number of registered companies in Hong Kong that employ persons with disabilities, according to SENsational
The official unemployment rate of persons with disabilities in 2013. Social welfare groups say it’s much higher in reality
of disabled individuals were jobless in 2017, according to a survey by six welfare groups
of employers said they wouldn’t hire disabled workers
Of Hong Kong employers expressed an interest in hiring disabled workers, according to a 2016 survey by CareER