A cafe empowers and employs people with disabilities

  • Only 19% of people with disabilities are employed, compared to about 64% of others.
  • The Bitty & Beau’s Coffee founder believes that if her employees are seen, stereotypes will be shattered.
  • She wants a global operation, so that “people around the world…see people with disabilities differently.”

WASHINGTON — Brendan O’Donnell, 43, smiled ear to ear as he took an impatient customer’s chai latte order.

“I have a learning disability, and at a very young age I was told I couldn’t walk or talk. Now look what I can do,” said O’Donnell, who recently started working as a barista at Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, a cafe that primarily employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

O’Donnell, a former AmeriCorps employee and courier to U.S. senators from Massachusetts, said unlike many people with disabilities, he had no trouble finding a job, but was treated differently when of his job search.

“There have been many times in my life that people have disrespected people with learning disabilities,” O’Donnell said. “They think we are not the same.”

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Only 19% of people with disabilities are employed

“Disability” describes a range of physical, developmental and mental conditions. Many disabilities are invisible but still require special accommodations.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities and must provide “reasonable accommodations” to level the playing field in order to successfully obtain and perform employment.

Most disabled people don’t have O’Donnell’s successful landing jobs. In 2021, 19.1% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 63.7% of people without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2016, Amy Wright sought to change that when she founded Bitty & Beau’s, named after her two youngest children, 12 and 17, both of whom have Down syndrome. She wants it to be a place where people with disabilities can do work that they find rewarding.

Wright describes Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, which became a chain, as a human rights movement “disguised as a coffee shop”.

His first store was in Wilmington, North Carolina. She then offered franchises, and the chain’s 12th location opened in Washington, DC on April 30. Wright said she plans to open 14 more locations across the country.

“What we’re really trying to do here is give people a place to see people with disabilities doing meaningful work, earning a living, making a difference, saving for their future, and when customers come to our store and see that, they can’t ignore it,” Wright said.

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Changing the way of thinking “from charity to prosperity”

Every Bitty and Beau’s Coffee employee is paid at least minimum wage, with opportunity for advancement through promotions and raises. Many leaders in the organization also have disabilities, according to Wright. Bitty and Beau’s Coffee works with its employees to determine their hours and provide benefits for their full-time employees.

She hopes her stores will inspire other business owners to hire people with disabilities more easily.

“We do not receive any federal or state subsidies. We try to convey that you can run a profitable business that employs people with disabilities,” she said. “We are trying to change the way society views people with disabilities from charity to prosperity.”

Wright hopes the company will one day have a global presence.

“We believe this is needed in every community, and the more stores we can open, the more portals there are to see what is possible so that people around the world can start to see people with disabilities differently,” a- she declared.

Employers often express less interest in candidates with disabilities than similar candidates without disabilities, even for positions where the disability does not affect the candidate’s ability to do the job, according to a 2011 study published in Industrial and Labor. Relationship Review.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 61 million adults in the United States live with physical or mental disabilities.  This represents just over a quarter of the adult population – and around 40% of people aged 65 or over.

Studies debunk stereotypes

These negative attitudes have been linked in part to misconceptions about the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities, according to a separate 2005 study.

Lisa Schur, professor and co-director of the Disability Research Program at Rutgers University, said this was largely due to stereotypes and assumptions by many employers.

“Often when a potential employer meets a person with a disability applying for a job, there’s this immediate reaction that that person is less qualified,” Schur said.

That had been the case for Mark Kelly, 55, who searched for a job for more than two years before Bitty and Beau’s hired him as a cashier and barista at the new Washington location.

“I savor everything. I would love to do more,” Kelly said.

He said his experience working the cash register at Bitty and Beau’s would help him get hired for future jobs.

In the past, Kelly has worked in construction, restoration and for the Department of Homeland Security. He found that people who work with people with disabilities often “don’t take the time to try to understand them and listen to what type of disability they have”.

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Barriers to getting a job

For the past 10 years, Kelly has received job training, career coaching and application assistance from the National Children’s Center, a non-governmental provider of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Washington area. The center put him in touch with Bitty and Beau’s.

“It’s not everywhere you can apply for a job as a person with a developmental disability and get hired,” said Ashley Haywood, program coordinator at the National Children’s Center.

Bitty & Beau employees are always welcome to provide feedback on their experience, Wright said. “We have hundreds of candidates on a waiting list that we would like to employ, but our attrition rate is less than 3%. We think that speaks for itself.

As a policy, Bitty & Beau’s does not ask its applicants to disclose their disability.

Schur, Professor Rutgers, said companies like Bitty and Beau’s alone cannot remove the many barriers to employment for people with disabilities. There also needs to be positive portrayals in popular media, increased learning opportunities, and help in navigating higher education for those who want it.

She also said policymakers must eradicate the sub-minimum wage — a wage lower than the federal minimum wage that can be paid to people with disabilities under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“Stereotypes can even prevent people from getting an interview,” she added.

“It’s not hard to hire someone with a disability,” said Meghan Young, Director of Franchise Relations and Brand Excellence at Bitty and Beau. “You just have to make adjustments and innovate according to their needs.”

Medill News Service publishes work by Northwestern University graduate journalism students in the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program.

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