Assessing abilities. Rudra Gurung from Ritz Carlton in conversation with a group of students from Manzil Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Xpress

Dubai: It’s 11am on a bright Tuesday morning and the career fair at the Shangri La Hotel on Shaikh Zayed Road is going on at full steam. At one table, Mark Anthony Guarino, recruitment specialist from Tanfeeth, a 100 per cent subsidiary of Emirates NBD, is busy interviewing Ramya Krishna Unni, a post-graduate in travel and tourism, for an entry-level opening.

High expectations

A few metres away, Rudra Gurung, talent acquisition manager from the Ritz Carlton, is engaged with a group of candidates. Expectations run high as you walk around the large hall where there are a total of 11 companies, 20 recruiters and 29 candidates.

Ramya Krishna Unni hopes she can land a good job with her post-graduate credentials

Nothing unusual about that, except that the candidates are all special, the career fair is exclusively for people with disabilities and determination. Organised by Emirates NBD, the initiative - The Careers Network - held under its flagship #TogetherLimitless advocacy platform aims to drive workplace inclusion for people with cognitive disabilities. Although figures in the UAE are not available, the unemployment rate of disabled people in the UK is nine per cent, with a survey last year showing that they needed to apply for 60 per cent more jobs than non-disabled jobseekers before they could find work.

Diverse workforce

An Emirates NBD spokesperson said, “Our career fairs, which are held every quarter, connect work-ready individuals with cognitive disabilities to employers interested in bringing diversity in their workforces. We have held five sessions so far since the launch of the initiative in November 2016.”

She said Emirates NBD alone has hired 36 people with disabilities so far. The total number of candidates screened by employers was 97 in 2016 and 125 in 2017.

Guarino of Tanfeeth said the company had recruited 25 special candidates last year and was looking to rope in 10-15 more this year from the network. “They are all for call centre or back office roles with an average salary of Dh4,000 plus free transportation, medical insurance and other benefits enjoyed by regular employees,” he said.

Bilal with his colleagues at Ella's Creamery where he works as host and waiter

The candidates are interviewed for a wide range of roles. Aya Impey, senior recruitment lead at L’Oreal, said, “We have openings in customer care, operations and in the supply chain. The interviews went well and we found a lot of talent here.”

The candidates on their part are a confident lot. Ramya, who has been diagnosed with cerebral atexia which causes involuntary jerky movements, said, “The interviews were okay. I did my MA in travel and tourism through open university and I am hopeful I will find a good job now.”

Top organisations

Echoing her words is a clutch of youngsters from Manzil: Mohammed Ishraq, Sara Hanafy and Madhushi, all with Down Syndrome, Fuad Wais (autism) and Fatima (developmental delay). They have all worked with top five-star hotels or other companies and are looking for new avenues. Samar Addasi, head of programmes who helps build their profiles and find matches, said, “We’ve had many success stories and 42 youngsters with disabilities have found placements so far.”

Employers who have taken special kids on board are a happy lot.

Donald Bremner, founder of Ella’s Creamery and MD, Stirling Hospitality, which has hired Bilal, who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome, said, “We had to establish a new team culture when we started the restaurant. Bilal has tasks to do, he is part of the team, an employee. He is our host and waiter who takes orders and serves ice cream. We are careful not to use this as a marketing ploy but send a message that it can be done in mom-and-pop entrepreneurial businesses.

Isphana Al Khatib, director of Al Noor Training Center for Persons with Disabilities, said, “We have managed to find jobs for 100 of our students so far and career fairs like these give us access to more employers. They create a greater sense of acceptance and understanding, besides opportunities. Like others, those with disabilities have different abilities, interests and potential. But they have some additional basic requirements in terms of life and work skills and the ability to stay safe. Most commonly, they are recruited to help out with teachers, office administration, call centre and back office jobs, data entry, hospitality roles like housekeeping, laundry, even front office.”

Parents of the determined lot are grateful. Aqeel Al Mulla who was accompanying his son Mansour, said, “Manso ur suffers from a rare medical condition. We live in Sharjah and are hoping we can find something for him within the emirate. Events like these give us hope.”