In my line of work, I have had the opportunities to meet and talk with some people in the industry who employ people with disability.
When I go out to trade shows, markets, I always share to people about my business’ vision of highlighting the abilities of people with disability. That really has opened up many doors and connections with organisations and employers that I never knew before.
What I’m about to share here is my conversations with them. What makes them open their business to people with disability in the first place, their process in day to day operation, their challenges, highlights and what they receive from employing people who have disability.
To be able to work and make a living is a basic human right. I believe through these conversations, ideas can be generated for more employment opportunities to help disabled community living their life meaningfully. I am hoping through the conversations we can identify the pitfalls and the challenges and work towards solutions to make the workplace a functional, enjoyable place for both the employers and employees.
PART 1: Employing people with disability in a café setting
I’m chatting with Christine Kollaris, the owner of Greenborough Christian Book Centre and coffee shop, in Greensborough, Melbourne. She employs four people with disability in her café.
M: What made you decide to employ people with disability?
C: We’re thinking to open up a coffee shop and we want to do something different. Our church has a strong community of people with disability, so we decided to go with that. We go with the group called “Araluen”. They provide training for our staff with disability in food handling skill.
M: Can you tell me more about Araluen?
C: Araluen is a private organization set up by parents for their disabled children. They provide training for various skills like travel, cooking, self-care, motivation, music group, art groups etc. They operate shared housing as well for their staff. Some staff also live independently.
M: When you started employing staff with disability, how were you feeling? Were you feeling not sure or scared?
C: Oh yeah… I run a bookshop too at the same time as running the café. I work 6 days a week, I live on a farm and I have many work and family commitments. Our café’s point of difference is to do the cooking on site which is all home cooking. I was worried about how effective I would be working with people with disability. Araluen was great to give a support worker alongside the staff until they were quite capable to work on their own. They ended up only needing 2 weeks of support.
M: How long do they work daily and what kind of disability do you work with?
C: They work at 2 hour shift, morning shift and afternoon shift. They have different types of conditions like speech impediment, down syndrome, and chromosome disorder.
M: How does employing people with disability impact your business, the challenges or their advantages?
C: In terms of monetary, it is not helpful nor it is unhelpful. But in terms of value, it’s enormous to see them grow. It’s beautiful to see the interaction between customers and my staff with disability. One of my staff has a quite speech impediment. Her parents were thrilled after she worked with us for 2 weeks. She asked them to take her back to speech therapy to practice speaking better. She used to think speech therapy was not benefiting her, that it wasn’t worth the effort as people still didn’t understand her when she spoke. But after working for 2 weeks, interacting with people, she wanted to get better. She can now see the reason why she needs to speak better, she can make the connection. The inner motivation gets her to want to get better.
I see how she wants to have relationship. She used to have a headphone all the time in public because of the auditory overload. But now she doesn’t need to. She starts to greet people.
M: What sort of challenges do you face working alongside them?
C: I learn I need to breathe deep and stand back and let them go at their pace. I learn that if I keep pushing or helping them, I don’t actually help reinforce that they are doing the right thing.
M: I see. Doing everything for them is not empowering them. I find that is like us parents. Many times we are tempted to do everything for our kids, but that doesn’t help them grow their skill. They need to be given chances to accomplish their task, although it will take longer.
M: How about the customers? Do they appreciate it? What are their responses?
C: Some people really like it and that’s why they support us. Some customers find it difficult and confronting. I am training my staff but I also am training my customers too at the same time.
Customers at times come into the café and look at me to serve them, instead of my staff member with disability. So I would redirect my customer to order from my staff.
Another challenge is to train my customers in their language when speaking to staff with disability. My customers used to say “I’ll have a light soy cappuccino in a mug, thanks”. I train them to say “I want a Cappuccino”…and then wait. Wait until my staff write it down. Then I would talk to my staff, reiterate the information “Cappuccino, do you remember the shorthand to write that down?” and then we will work through one by one for that order. My customers get used to that and they learn to give their information in a methodical way. I also have to train my staff. Sometimes customers get the order book from their hand and write down their order themselves because they think it’s too tricky for the disabled staff to write down. I would tell my staff to not let that happen because I know they are able. I don’t want them to think they are not able to do their job right.
M: That’s such an important point. They need to know that they are able although they are slower. And that’s ok. Everyone needs to practice to get things right and be given the chances to practice.
C: It’s a lot to do with confidence. When they get confident, they can do it a lot faster. When I first started the cafe, I didn’t know the workflow manner that would be most efficient. It was so stressful. I remind myself, if I myself find this stressful, its even more so for someone who does it less often and they take longer to learn.
But we have a lot of high five, Well Done, You Are Amazing, Good on You. I’ve never been told so often that I’m beautiful, I’m lovely, I’m their best friend. Even my husband doesn’t talk that nice to me.
M: Sounds like a very positive environment to be in! I think confidence is such a key factor. Fear holds people back. Fear of being rejected. Fear of other people getting mad at you when you make a mistake or not being fast enough or not meeting the expectation. All of these things feed into the lack of confidence and low self-esteem. But when other people start accepting them, be a bit more patient with them, tolerating a 2-minute delay in getting their coffee served…all these can make a big difference in their lives, helping them to be more confident doing their job.
C: Yes, they get to learn that mistakes is part of doing things. They see me making mistakes and I show them that it’s ok. Working in a café, I would drop spoon on the floor and I just kicked it out of the way. And we just have a giggle. I show them we could pick it up later when we have the time. It doesn’t matter, mistakes are part of life.
M: Thanks for your time Christine. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. It has been so insightful to hear the real story of what’s going on in a workplace. We sure hope other employers will also join you to give more employment opportunities out there for people with disability.
Subscribe to our newsletter for Part 2: Is It Deficit or Strength? You Choose! I am chatting with a mum of a successful business owner, who has multiple disability conditions from Townsville. When her daughter has finished school, she has been told her conditions were too impossible to find employment. Find out how this mum came up with a creative business idea that proved to the naysayers how wrong they were.
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