Zia Mirza is an inspiring example of how learning sign language can break down barriers.
The former freelance dancer and model, 22, lost his hearing at age five because of a debilitating illness while living in his native Pakistan. He admits life in the office was a lonely experience when he first started at Tanfeeth, a subsidiary of Emirates NBD.
But help was soon at hands thanks to efforts to make the work environment easier for people with disabilities, including the teaching of sign language.
“There was a lot of silence when I first came because nobody could speak to me,” said Mr Mirza, hired last year as a junior processing associate with Tanfeeth.
Adding people with disabilities to the workplace has not only altered the physical landscape – with ramps, wider bathrooms and more convenient parking spots – but brought people with hearing loss into the wider conversation.
“Now, people use their hands to communicate," he said. "I can see their expressions change, their hands move. They come up to me and talk with their gestures instead of the notes they would write earlier to explain something to me.”
Mr Mirza studied in Dubai after moving to the emirate from his homeland with his family.
After finishing school, he found work as a model and dancer and enjoys sharing photographs of his time going step for step with Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan during movie promotions in Dubai.
Now, he is finding his footing again thanks to the support of his employers.
He is among more than 60 people with disabilities, widely referred to as people of determination in the Emirates, who were connected with employers as part of Emirates NBD’s Careers Network.
"I want to challenge myself and learn other processes in the company. This opportunity has opened up the world for me," said Mr Mirza, as he signed responses translated by his colleague Ranga Madhushanka.
Learning to sign has helped Mr Madhushanka, a risk processing administrator, to better understand colleagues with special needs.
"It has opened up a whole new channel of communication. I realise they have their own distinctive, individual voices just through how they sign," he said.
“It has been a great learning experience for us all.”
Fatima Abdul Rahman, Tanfeeth's chief human resources officer, said sign-language training for employees was part of broader development plan at the company, which handles a call centre, collection, recoveries, payments and back-office work for the bank.
“I want to grow them into bigger roles. I would like to nurture and develop the staff we have,” she said.
About 34 people with disabilities work in a variety of roles, from the cheque-clearing department to opening new accounts to the credit department, data entry and human resource training.
The company has put a buddy system in place and calls in experts from non-government organisations for guidance.
The initiative required acceptance across the ranks for inclusion to succeed, Ms Abdul Rahman said.
“It’s not just about numbers and hiring more people with disabilities and setting targets for the future,” she said.
“For a truly inclusive atmosphere, staff should handle people of determination with sensitivity.”
Hiring people with disabilities also helps to shatter stereotypes that they are more expensive to employ, and motivates other employees.
“Some companies have this fear and think that it is way more expensive to hire people of determination. I disagree because I have seen the positivity spread,” Ms Abdul Rahman said.
“A staffer has no excuse not to come to work and not be productive when his peers who are people of determination are putting in so much more effort.”