How can we teach our children to deal with people who are different? A new coffee shop in Cape Town gives us and our kids the chance to interact with people with special needs. The coffee and food are great too!
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
More importantly, there's information on
how to understand and interact with your waiter. For those of us who still feel
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
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!"