The staff at Brownies & Downies in Cape Town are friendly, passionate and talented. They also have a range of intellectual disabilities – but this doesn't slow them down one bit.
Brownies & Downies was born in the Netherlands, where there are already close to 30 cafés. The new Long Street coffee shop has just opened and, like its Dutch counterparts, aims to train people with learning disabilities for work in the hospitality, service and retail industries.
According to owner and head social worker Wendy Vermeulen, she saw a great need for skills training among people with special needs. "They go to special school until they're 18 - but then what?" At Brownies & Downies they can get experience as waiters, or hone their skills behind the scenes. One of the staff members is Raquelle, a bubbly young woman who loves working in the kitchen. Then there's Richard, who wants to be a barista. "He's really, really good!" boasts Wendy.
But perhaps the greatest training at Brownies & Downies is not the skills taught to the staff, but the lessons that we, the members of the public who aren't faced with intellectual disabilities very often, can learn.
"Awareness is a big thing," reckons Wendy. That's why they've printed a booklet with information on the conditions you'll encounter among the staff, namely Down syndrome, autism, Foetal Alcohol syndrome and other learning disabilities.
More importantly, there's information on how to understand and interact with your waiter. For those of us who still feel awkward around people with special needs, the message is simple: Don't treat them any differently. In other words, act normally – if "normal" means being patient and kind, not impolite and sarcastic.
"Some of our waiters may come across as rude or disinterested, or they may need a little more time to process what you say," says Wendy. She wants customers to learn not to feel offended or to become rude in return. "Yes, complain if something goes wrong, but don't shout at the waiter." That, she believes, is a good lesson for dealing with any person, not just somebody with special needs.
So then, while we're talking about rudeness, what about the name? Isn't it offensive to talk about "Downies"? Actually, explains Brownies & Downies, the name was coined by parents of young adults with Down syndrome. And they made sure they had the national Down syndrome association's seal of approval before embarking on the Cape Town venture.
Besides, the very debate around the name can be a good thing: "It draws out the type of questions people need to ask themselves and each other." (Also, shouldn't people with Down syndrome get to decide what offends them?)
Ultimately, Wendy hopes that more businesses will employ people with intellectual disabilities. "Yes, they might have a learning disability, or Down syndrome, or a lower IQ or whatever the case is. But they can still do it. I mean, they're doing it here!"
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