Breaking barriers

* Coffee-making fun at the café, chef John Bairstow, with Mark Smit, Chloe Courtney and Danecia Windvogel.

Most disabled people in this country are physically able to work, but they just can’t find jobs – that’s something three women who have opened a craft cafe and coffee shop in Retreat plan to change.

According to Stats SA, 7.5% of South Africans are disabled. Of these, 99% are capable of working but are unemployed.

And these are only the reported statistics, according to Diana Phillips, an occupational therapist and one of three founders of Lucy G Craft Café.

Many, she says, fall through the cracks and sit at home doing nothing, having no stimulation and no opportunity to work and contribute to society.

Ms Phillips joined Michelle Roos and Helen Garaghty to start a business that hires special-needs adults in the heart of the Retreat business area.

They opened last week and have 16 staff aged 18 to 42 who work three shifts, learning workplace skills.

Jenny Wynne Dyke, Kyle Wood, Daryl Carrington and Jo Garaghty previously worked in protective workshops or remedial centres doing repetitive jobs such as tearing up used books or sticking labels on bottles, all for very little pay.

They are now working in the kitchen at Lucy G, making food and beverages or learning crafts while interacting with the community.

Cosmos Virima was at home but at Lucy G he has learnt woodworking and computers doing the inventory.

Ms Phillips said that in the short time since they had opened they had seen remarkable changes in their staff.

Jo did not talk but now chats with customers. Mr Virima only has the use of one hand but helps out in the kitchen and folds fabric-painting items and loves socialising.

Ms Courtney is taking orders and offering advice on numbering the tables and wants to try new things.

Ms Garaghty said they were working with an unknown quantity, it was a new concept but they would persevere.

The craft café  is named after Lucy Garaghty Geel, who gave birth to a still born daughter Alexis at 38 weeks after a seemingly healthy pregnancy in February 2015. Acute fatty liver of pregnancy was diagnosed immediately after the birth of her baby. Lucy’s major organs began to shut down starting with her liver and she spent the next eight weeks in ICU which included five weeks in total isolation as doctors fought hard to save her life. After heart failure Lucy was put on a life support machine which was switched off on April 2, 2015. 
Lucy’s sister Jo is mentally challenged and her mum wanted to honour the memory of Lucy while creating something worthwhile for her sister and those like her.

And while they see their bank balances dwindle, the dynamic trio dream of creating a chain of Lucy Gs dotted around Cape Town, with minibuses to transport employees.

The venue is also a workshop for crafts for the community and the space can be hired. Ms Phillips has worked at the Chaeli Campaign in Plumstead teaching crafts and skills. She said many special-needs children left school to find they had very few options.

“If they are lucky, they’ll get into a workshop, but not in rural areas, while many want to get into meaningful work and break down barriers and interact with others,” said Ms Phillips.

She said some of the Lucy G staff stayed for one hour while others wanted to stay a whole day. She grades them, depending on their level of ability, from something simple, like grating cheese, to cooking.

And as they learn a new skill their confidence grows.

Ms Phillips said there was no pressure on businesses to hire people with special needs.

“Excuses range from being sick often to needing a facilitator,” she said.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Dean de Grange said Lucy G was an imaginative plan and something they would like to see succeed as it could provide a model for similar projects in the future.

Peta Johnson, principal of Rondebosch special-needs school Vista Nova, said the job opportunities open to her pupils once they left school depended on their cognitive ability and the extent of the possible medical condition and physical disability.

“Many are perfectly capable of enrolling at a tertiary institution to study. Some special schools offer vocational training for their own pupils who are of school-leaving age but not yet able to enter the labour market.

“Some pupils enter the private sector in lower level employment. Others may require supported/workshop employment, but many have no such opportunity, as placements are few and far between, and mainstream employment in the public and private sector is even less promising.”

More than 2 800 people with disabilities accessed 52 state-funded protective workshops in the province in the past financial year, according to Esther Lewis, from the Department of Social Development.

She said the department also had a strategy to include the disabled in more mainstream activities and programmes.

Ms Johnson said that despite all the “hype” around the UN Charter on the Rights of the Disabled and similar global initiatives, no real difference had been made in the lives of the disabled.

“Way too many people still believe that kerb cutaways and Dial-a-Ride means accessibility and that it’s okay to use a disabled parking bay or loo for just five minutes,” said Ms Johnson.

“Factors such as accessibility, training, matching and placing, supervision, support and mentoring have to be put in place, even if employment is obtained because without such a strategy, employment is doomed to fail,” she said.

“The worst-case scenario is that they sit at home, if they’re fortunate, with someone who cares and assists with therapeutic requirements and activities of daily living. If not, they are unstimulated, untreated and alone.

“Instead, they can be constructive to the industry and in the workplace and are people with skills, talents, possibilities, goals and dreams – just like you and me,” said Ms Johnson.

One company that found this is Merrypak in Ndabeni. One of the owners, Julie Tobiansky, said their special-needs employees were their most committed staff.

“They are reliable and enthusiastic and their positivity rubs off on everyone they work with,” she said.

About eight years ago, they decided to embrace the concept of inclusive employment, hiring people with intellectual disabilities.

“We were concerned when we hired the first person with intellectual disability because we had no experience of how they would be accepted by our other staff. We needn’t have worried, as they have been very welcoming and accepting.

“Now we run an inclusive workplace which means that, as much as possible, our 37 special-needs staff are integrated into all departments.

“I believe that all businesses should embrace the thinking that these special young people belong in the workplace,” said Ms Tobiansky.

Lucy G can be found at 29 Silverwater Street, Kirstenhof. Visit www.lucyg.co.za