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Big Bazaar’s Quiet Hours are enabling people with autism gain independence

August 2, 2019

Watch in Sign Language

Given the loud music, bright lights and noisy cash registers, shopping can be an unpleasant experience for people on the autism spectrum. Big Bazaar's Quiet Hour initiative is changing this. Find out more.

A grocery list in hand, Amit* pushes a shopping trolley down an aisle at a Big Bazaar outlet at Vasal Mall, Jallandhar. There are colourful stickers to identify each item and accompanied by a Big Bazaar staffer, he ticks the items off his to-do list and drops them into the trolley.

17-year-old Amit loves to go shopping - the exercise of making a list, going to a mall, picking the items, and checking the list is uplifting and empowering. Now, thanks to Big Bazaar's Quiet Hour initiative for people on the autism spectrum, he gets to enjoy this experience every Tuesday.

For one hour a week, the opening hours at 23 Big Bazaar stores across India, are designated Quiet Hours for people with autism and other developmental disorders and their family members/caregivers to enjoy a sensory-friendly shopping experience.

A child preparing his shopping list.
A shopping list with checkmarks against wrappers of biscuits, juice, and chips.
A shopping list with checkmarks against wrappers of chips, juice, and chocolates.

Sensory-friendly in every way

During those hours, lights are kept dim, no announcements are made, no music is played, and cash registers don't ring. There is a safe play area too where parents to leave their kids and shop without a worry. Ensuring it all flows seamlessly is a sensitised staff. The initiative was rolled out by Big Bazaar earlier this year after considerable thought, time and effort.

"Big chains rarely look at small cities, when it is actually here that change has to happen", says Anjali Dada, Founder, SOCH-Autism Society of Punjab, in Jallandhar, among the 17 NGOs and organisations Big Bazaar has collaborated with in rolling the initiative out.

"Awareness in smaller cities is way lower than metros so when we head what Big Bazaar was planning, we were thrilled", adds Anjali. "It is a big step for India and in our little city, it has made a big difference".

Key to the success of the Quiet Hour initiative was staff sensitisation and here the NGOs played a crucial part through one-on-one trainings and modules. Big Bazaar also provided PPTs which were supplemented with on the ground experiences of the NGOs. A video created by the Big Bazaar team also gives a useful guide to shoppers with autism on the steps to follow during shopping.

A group of women and a child shopping at one of the aisles in Big Bazaar.
Big Bazaar staff assisting a child and her parent in the clothing section.
A group of disabled individuals smiling happily and posing for a photograph at a Big Bazaar outlet.

Life skills learned

There are activities planned in few stores during the Quiet Hour period to teach the children and youth useful skills depending on the age. These range from naming the fruit/vegetable chosen, comparing prices, looking for special offers and discounts, waiting in line at the billing counter and handling cash.

Given the scale and rarity of such an initiative in India, it was not easy.

"It took time for the sensitisation, but you could see that there was a commitment from the top with everyone was on board", says Indrani Basu, Autism Society of West Bengal, one of the NGO partners. Indrani believes that thanks to the initiative, a person with disability is being seen as a customer.

"It's not that they don't go shopping, but they are sidelined. Here, for the first time, you have shoppers with complex disabilities and a staff meeting their every need". This is in turn is creating awareness, says Indrani because "these employees, who probably have nothing to do with disability, will go home and tell their families and friends, so the potential impact is huge".

So, what is the impact the Quiet Hour is making? The evidence is best brought out in testimonials.

Mumbai-based Divya* now visits the Big Bazaar store at Ivory Mall regularly with her daughter, something she could never think of earlier as she would worry about other staring if her child had a meltdown or started rocking.

"Recently, when we went to the Big Bazaar store, my daughter paid the grocery bill on her own, which is a huge step for her. But after that she had a meltdown and started crying and shouting", recalls Divya. "The staff was calm, made her sit and gave her a glass of water". Her daughter gradually calmed down and Divya becomes emotional when she remembers the respect and compassion shown by the staff. "They were so kind and understanding and it really makes such a huge difference".

"This is enabling them in fundamental ways", believes Paromita Mazumdar, Founder, Sunshine School, a Navi Mumbai centre that reaches out to children and youth with developmental disorders.

"At the centre, we are training them for independent living and they actually get to use those skills when we go to the Big Bazaar store. They now get to choose and at this age it brings with it a feeling of independence. "They are at an age where they want to make choices in what they wear and eat and to pay for them. Such experiences enable that", adds Paromita.

Accounts like these are a huge motivating factor for Vineet Saraiwala, Inclusion Head, Big Bazaar and his team.

Through the Quiet Hour stories, we want to raise awareness about autism and salute the differences in people. These gestures would never be written in any training manual, but come out because at a fundamental level we all are humans and share the common bonding of humanity. - Vineet Saraiwala, Inclusion Head, Big Bazaar

Big Bazaar is also scaling up the inclusion initiative through a Internship programme for people with disabilities. In Mumbai, it has partnered with Adya Akshar, a centre that reaches out to children and youth with multiple disorders. There are plans to launch this in different cities.

"We have just started a life skills training programme for our students with Big Bazaar", says Sonali Gomes, Co-founder, Adya Akshar. To start with, 10 youth have signed up to be trained in different aspects like stocking products, billing, etc. The idea is to eventually equip them with the skills needed to work at Big Bazaar stores".

"The training is currently on for three days a week and its wonderful to see the support being extended to us from every level at Big Bazaar, be it the HR head or team leaders", says Sonali. "You can see that everyone there really wants to learn and believes in making inclusion a reality".

Inclusion apart, the initiative underlines a larger message that people with disabilities are an economic force capable of exercising choices.

"They buy things and because they buy things, people make them, so you cannot say they don't count", says Indrani. "They are eating, buying clothes, doing all the things that make them consumers, so give them the due respect. This group has become visible and Big Bazaar has made that happen".

Some names have been concealed upon request.

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