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Big Bazaar leads the way with a Quiet Hour for shoppers on the autism spectrum, a World Disability Day special

December 4, 2018

Everyday chores like going shopping can be stressful for someone with autism. The bright lights, music, announcements and noises at malls can all be rather overwhelming, and Mumbai parent Seema Dhir would avoid it altogether when her son Sanskaar, who has autism, was small.

"As he grew older I started taking him so he would get used to that experience and learned to mingle. But it was difficult, especially on weekends when the malls are crowded".

So Seema was more than happy when she found out about Big Bazaar's initiative, an Asia first, to hold a Quiet Hour on a pilot basis in one of their Mumbai outlets. The retail chain approached Sol's Arc, a Mumbai-based centre for disabled youth and kids where Sanskaar studies, to help understand the needs of people on the spectrum.

This is a revolutionary concept for India and it is a step forward towards embracing the differences among us. Big Bazaar is committed towards inclusiveness and making our stores accessible for all. This is the firts such effort to learn things, get feedback from the community and improve the shopping experience. - Bhaskar Nair, Store Manager, Big Bazaar Matunga

Considerable time and effort was spend towards making this day a success. "Big Bazaar approached us in August this year and a lot of research went behind it, from, inviting their team to our centre to understand the needs of people and their challenges", says Poonam Naik, Project Head, Sol's Arc. "Their team did a session with the children and adults at our centre. We also set up a group of parents who helped them understand how to make shopping accessible for people with autism."

That attention to detail was more than evident on for two hours, 70 families, parents and children, enjoyed a calm, shopping experience with a staff that had been trained to understand and meet their needs.

"There was no rush at all and the children were very comfortable", said Nandita Sanil, mother to a 22-month-old with autism. "The staff was very friendly and one of them even held my son and took him around. They did not look at the children like they were different or odd".

This feeling of comfort and ease is something mostly absent in the Indian shopping experience, points out Parul Kumtha, Founder, Forum For Autism, a support network of parents. A universal design architect, she is also a consultant for Biz Bazaar's universal design infrastructure initiative.

"The Quiet Hour is a step in the right direction to create an inclusive environment for disabilities like autism and others with sensorial processing difficulties. The sheer demographic magnitudes in Indian cities makes shopping a crowded experience for all persons with sensorial processing difficulties, including autism. Crowds come with a truckload of sensory overload in the form of noise, sights, smells, excessive movement and proximity to each other. This could result in meltdowns for autistic people, preventing them from experiencing shopping in a pleasant and fulfilling way".

Apart from sensitization workshops with the staff, the team of parents and experts from Sol's Arc also gave vital inputs to make the Quiet Hour a success. For instance, the intensity of lights was dimmed and the noises from machines and trolleys was kept to a minimal. Announcements were reduced as well.

"We asked them to give prominence to visual signages", says Naik. "So, each section was given a signage and category. Like the food section had a visual card. We gave them a few samples they could go by".

Another lovely touch was an engagement zone where volunteers conducted fun activities for kids who were feeling troubled or being aggressive. "Over the two-day sensitization program, we explained the behavior pattern to the staff, so they understood what kind of support the parent and child needs. This way they could offer support without biases", said Naik.

The move has been appreciated by experts from across India. Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Founder, Kilikili, an organization that has spearheaded the campaign for inclusive playgrounds, calls this a welcome step.

"It does show a willingness to make the necessary adaptations for a group of people who may find shopping quite overwhelming. And frankly, it will suit many of us non-autistic people too as the experience of shopping in malls can be extremely overwhelming sensorially. So it may be a move that benefits not just people with autism but many others too".

There was overwhelming praise from the group for the Big Bazar staff, which plans to learn from this experiment before launching it on a bigger scale. One parent said this was the kind of support they need. "This is exactly what we were looking for, that someone looks at us with love, respect and acceptance".

High praise indeed and words that will hopefully inspire many other brands to follow.

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