Lee Sang-hyuk working at the Plaza Hotel. (Plaza Hotel)
Arranging linen and folding towels may be simple and monotonous tasks for many hoteliers. But for Lee Sang-hyuk, 23, the work is a precious source of confidence and hope for the future.
Lee, a new employee of the Plaza Hotel in the heart of Seoul, is the first regular hotelier with a disability in the country.
He has a mild, third-degree intellectual disability, a level in which social and occupational rehabilitation is possible through education and training.
After three months of training, Lee started to work at the hotel last month in linen and towel management.
He handles about 2,000 towels with a colleague from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day,
“I was kind of lost with lots of work at first. But thanks to the manager and other coworkers’ help, I was able to learn my work step by step and get used to it,” Lee said.
Some concerns did exist among a few managers in the beginning, but they were immediately dispelled by Lee’s diligence and ability to quickly adapt, his coworkers said.
His recruitment was part of the fruitful results of Seoul City’s joint project called “the Disabled Transforming into Hoteliers,” with the Korea Employment Agency for the Disabled.
Launched in March, the project was initiated to find suitable jobs for the disabled. It first applied to the accommodation industry.
Connecting hotels with job-finders, the project succeeded in providing job opportunities to seven disabled workers.
All of them are currently working at hotels, including three who are intellectually disabled. The Plaza is planning to hire eight additional disabled employees next year.
Lee’s disability was not noticeable until elementary school. His mother realized later that Lee’s study level problem was not about slow development but a disability. Her dedication and love for her son has helped Lee to complete his education all the way through college.
“My mother always stood behind me, watching and correcting me whenever I did something wrong,” he added.
After graduating from a two-year college in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, with a degree in business in 2010, Lee was hired by McDonald’s through a public welfare center’s support. Cleaning the restaurant and replacing broken lights for two and a half years, the 23-year-old became jaded with work.
“I felt like I would only clean for my whole life. I was tired of the workload and disrespectful manner of some coworkers.”
He quit the fast food restaurant and searched for something that he could learn through. Lee visited a job fair for the disabled and applied for several jobs but failed.
“I blamed my capability. I was kind of hurt as well when some companies didn’t even respond back to my application,” he said.
Thanks to his mother’s support, he was able to start work at a syringe factory in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. But the new job did not last long because the factory moved to Chungcheong Province, much farther from home.
His last destination was the KEAD. Counseling with its advisers at the public job support center for the disabled, Lee was recommended for the hotelier job based on an in-depth assessment of aptitude and personality.
Folding towels one by one is not merely a work task but a step closer to his future goal. Lee, as a novice hotelier, now dreams of stepping forward in his career with more confidence and courage.
“I would like to be a great chief manager just like my boss,” he said in a hopeful voice.
By Lee Hyun-jeong (email@example.com