WASHINGTON — “I have a learning disability, and at a very young age, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to walk and talk. Now, look what I can do,” said O’Donnell, who recently began work as a barista at Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, a coffee shop that primarily employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

O’Donnell, a former AmeriCorps employee and courier for Massachusetts’ U.S. senators, said that unlike many people with disabilities, he has not struggled to find employment, but he has experienced differential treatment during his job search.

“It’s happened a lot of times in my life that people don’t respect people with learning disabilities,” O’Donnell said. “They think that we’re not the same.”

Just 19% of people with a disability 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 may not discriminate against people with disabilities and must provide “reasonable accommodations” to level the playing field to get a job and perform it successfully.

Most people with disabilities do not have O’Donnell’s success landing jobs. In 2021, 19.1% of people with a disability were employed, compared with 63.7% of people without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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

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

Her first shop was in Wilmington, North Carolina. She subsequently offered franchises, and the chain’s 12th location opened in Washington, D.C., on April 30. Wright said she has plans to open 14 more locations around 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 paycheck, making a difference, saving for their futures, and when guests come in our shop and see that, they can’t unsee it,” Wright said.

Shift thinking ‘from charity to prosperity’

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

She hopes her shops will inspire other business owners to more readily hire people with disabilities.

“We do not receive any federal or state subsidies. We’re trying to make a point that you can run a profitable business that employs people with disabilities,” she said. “We’re trying to shift the way society thinks about people with disabilities from charity to prosperity.”

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

“We believe there is a need for this in every community, and the more shops we can open, the more portals to seeing what’s possible so that people everywhere can begin to see people with disabilities differently,” she said.

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

Studies debunk stereotypes

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

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

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

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

“I enjoy it all. I would like to do more,” Kelly said.

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

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

Obstacles to getting a job

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

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

Bitty & Beau’s employees are always welcome to provide feedback on their experience, Wright said. “We have hundreds of applicants on a waiting list that we wish we could 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 disabilities.

Schur, the Rutgers professor, said that businesses like Bitty and Beau’s alone can’t erase the many barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Also needed are positive representations in popular media, increased opportunities for apprenticeships and help to navigate higher education for those who want it.

She also said policymakers need to eradicate the subminimum wage – a wage below the federal minimum wage that can be paid to disabled persons under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

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

“It’s not hard to hire somebody with a disability,” said Meghan Young, Bitty and Beau’s director of franchise relations and brand excellence. “You just got to make tweaks and innovate around their needs.”

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

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