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  • The ULF Team

Destinations: A Journey Towards Workplace Inclusion

Creating an inclusive workplace takes a lot of dedication and effort. In this story, we'll hear about how Kentucky Manufacturing Corporation continue striving for an inclusive workplace despite the challenges they face.

(in picture, from L to R: Richard Gregorio, Mark Joffrey Bonifacio, Romel Anadia, Adora Osio-Enero (interpreter), Katrina Libarnes, and Joel Lao)

One way to a more inclusive society is more job opportunities to Persons with Disability (PWDs). This means giving them better chances at employment. There are many accounts of positive experiences when it comes to hiring PWDs. But building an inclusive workplace is never a walk in the park. It takes proper training, introduction, and adjustments to embrace people who are abled differently.

Kentucky Manufacturing Corporation, a clothing manufacturing company in Valenzuela, is still in the early stages of their journey towards inclusion journey.

In February 2017, Kentucky hired five Deaf employees through Project Inclusion: Joel Lao, Romel Anadia, Mark Joffrey Bonifacio, Katrina Libarnes, and Richard Gregorio.

Here, they talk about the realities of and share their learnings on hiring PWDs.

Early Challenges

When they first hired PWDs, one major obstacle that the company faced was communication, said General Manager Terrence Co. They had little to no background in sign language. Relaying technical work terms such as “salansan” (the act of shaking clothes and stacking them on top of each other) or “quality control” were a big challenge for supervisors, colleagues, and their Deaf employees. “Very limited yung mga terminologies namin.” (We have very limited terminologies.)

Aside from this, the supervisors and co-workers observed that their Deaf employees tended to be forgetful. They required constant supervision, which heavily affected their training and overall productivity.The Deaf employees couldn’t work independently. “Palagi na lang dapat may nakaalalay,” said Mr. Terrence. (We always needed to assign someone to guide them). They would also forget simple administrative tasks, like punching in their time cards, shared supervisor Marivic Denajeba.

Ms. Adora, an interpreter for the Deaf, said that, more often than not, Deaf persons really forget simple details. “Sa totoo lang kailangan talaga ng reminder… (For them) to see is to believe (To tell you the truth, they really need a reminder… To see is to believe)”, she said. They would only remember when they see that they really have received their pay, or when they’re shown that they forgot to time in for the day.

Several studies suggest a relationship between cognitive function (including short-term memory, and long-term memory) and hearing impairment. One study by Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist and an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, showed brain atrophy (shrinkage of brain) after significant hearing loss over time in the areas linked to memory, sound processing, speech and sensory integration. Other studies show that this shrinkage “were related to early stages of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Though no full explanation or correlation has been found, there are many theories about how memory is affected by hearing impairment. One possible cause is that the brain has a difficult time multi-tasking. When multiple processes are at play, the brain has less space for memory and balance.

Richard and Joel were assigned to the quality control department, where they work under supervisor Jenny Vinuya. One time, she tried not to entertain their questions, in attempt to encourage them work on their own. This gesture was misinterpreted by the Deaf employees, and they thought Ms. Jenny was angry at them. Because of this, Ms. Jenny, the other supervisors, and the Hearing employees learned to be more mindful of their actions when around their Deaf colleagues.

Deaf persons rely heavily on what they see. Body language, text messages, and facial expressions make a big impact on them. This can be both a disadvantage and an advantage, say Ms. Jenny and Ms. Marivic. They exert extra effort to be conscious of their actions so that they can make the Deaf comfortable in the workplace. As a result, the Hearing also become happy and cheerful at work.

Ms. Marivic shared that she felt afraid and worried when she learned that she would be handling Deaf employees. “Frankly speaking… ‘yung pinaka-una kong naramdaman, andoon yung nangangamba ako e’. (Frankly speaking… the very first thing I felt, I felt worried and afraid.)”

A fellow employee at Kentucky has a sibling who’s Deaf, and Ms. Jenny has basic sign language skills. With their help, Ms. Marivic can deal with the situation more confidently.

The supervisors also get their motivation from Co, who showed willingness and confidence in hiring Deaf employees. Project Inclusion provided support through a Deaf Culture and Basic Sign Language training.

Small wins

The supervisors expressed that accepting their tendency to be very forgetful is a must to be able to make them more productive and effective at work. They know that they need to learn how to work their way around this tendency so that they can continue improving and become more productive in the workplace.

But there are small wins. One day, Ms. Jenny shares, Joel and Richard were able to work on their tasks perfectly without asking questions, only to need guidance again two days later. But to Ms. Jenny and the other co-workers, progress is still progress.

Katrina, on the other hand, has greatly improved in her tasks of shaking clothes and stacking them. She shared how her job was physically taxing to her, her other Deaf co-workers told us how they had to help her even during breaks. But the changes in her wages show that she was able to improve greatly despite this. She is paid according to how many pieces she can work on, and she used to earn only Php 200 this way. Every week, Ms. Jenny shares, Katrina improves, and slowly her earnings increased: from Php 200 pesos, to Php 450, and now Php 900. She continues to get better at her job.

What the management agrees on is that Joel, Romel, Joffrey, Katrina, and Richard all bring happiness to their co-workers at Kentucky. Their honesty, determination, and willingness contribute to creating a positive atmosphere at work.

Inclusion is a Worthwhile Journey

Mr. Terrence admits it was not easy to lead his company to inclusion. “What I learned is I don’t understand [our Deaf employees] that much. Marami yung mga biases ko at play. (Many of my biases are at play.)” He is always looking for ways to motivate Kentucky’s Deaf, so that their work will be at par, or as close to it as possible, with their hearing counterparts.

Why they are still set on regularizing their PWD employees, despite all the setbacks? Mr. Terrence believes persistence and faith are two main principles needed when working with PWDs. “If I want this to grow, I have to prove to the rest of the people na kahit na Deaf sila, kaya pa rin namin gawing at par ‘yung productivity nila. If I want to hire more Deaf, I really need to push them na to be at-par, and I would really need them to stay. ‘Di ko nakitang a program will work if kung six months-six months lang [‘yung kontrata].” (If I want this to grow, I have to prove to the rest of the people that even though they’re Deaf, their productivity can be at-par. If I want to hire more Deaf, I really need to push them to be at-par, and I would really need them to stay. I don’t see a program working if the contract’s just for six months.)

Mr. Terrence recognizes that they’re fortunate that the company is stable, which allows him to pursue workplace inclusion and take risks.

Kasi we don’t have much problem outside, so far nagiging problem lang is production. Sometimes kulang kami sa production. So there’s really room for me to experiment… If you’re really thin on margin… I don’t think I will experiment on that,” he says.

Mr. Terrence encourages companies with enough stability to embrace workplace inclusion. “If you’re lucky enough to have this kind of situation, I encourage na maging socially inclusive. (I encourage other companies to become socially inclusive.)”

He offers this reassurance, “It’s not a big loss naman if they want to experiment in hiring the PWDs. Vanity comes into play, na I also want to say, ‘See we have PWDs working with us.’ But more than that, what I want is for them to realize is that the PWDs can also be at-par… or at least hindi malayo yung gap.” (Or at least the gap’s not too wide.)”

Mr. Terrence believes in PWDs, despite the bumps on the road. He has seen their willingness and eagerness to keep their jobs and to do their work well. He knows that they have certain aspirations, and he doesn’t want to be an obstacle to that.

Big Dreams, Bigger Efforts

Richard signed to us, “I want to have my own family, I want to be a regular (employee).” Joffrey, Mark, Joel, and Katrina agreed. Through their expressions and movements, they showed their desire to be at par with their Hearing counterparts, not only in terms of production but also in their status at Kentucky.

It has been nearly five months since they started working at Kentucky, and they wonder if their contracts will be ending soon. All five Deaf feel anxiety about keeping their jobs.

Mr. Terrence is set on their regularization. He believes their Deaf employees can continue improving, with proper support and guidance, and the right motivation. The Deaf, just like the Hearing, have strengths and weaknesses.

Employers need the persistence, and the right motivations, to make this work. Mr. Terrence says, “If you want to take somebody in, you don’t just take their good points, you also have to take in the bad points, and grow together.” This is why the people at Kentucky are always looking for ways to properly motivate and train their Deaf employees.

Just like everyone else, the Deaf have their own stories and personalities. They want to do better at their jobs. Giving PWDs the access to employment, and allowing them to grow through proper motivation and their own hard work, will allow for a more inclusive society. Given room to improve, and the right opportunities, they can thrive.

Society shouldn’t give up on PWDs. Like everyone else, they dream and live and breathe the same air. The only difference is they don’t get the same opportunities as everyone else.

With Kentucky’s story, perhaps more hearts and more paths will open for all persons with disability.

About the author: Dominique is a communications intern at Unilab Foundation. Dominique has been studying advertising and public relations in the Ateneo de Manila University for 3 years. She dreams to create a wildlife sanctuary in different parts of the world all while producing concerts in the Philippines and abroad. She loves music, travelling, and animals.

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