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People with disabilities have a hard time finding a job. In Belarus, coffee is a solution

A new profession that helps earn extra money is on the rise in Belarus. So does the important message of inclusivity for people with disabilities.

A video depicts a noisy group of friends entering a coffee shop. It is busy inside. A young waitress approaches a hipsterish-looking man who wants to pay his bill. She passes the check to a cashier guy. A smiling barista is serving cappuccino. It seems like a regular cafe.

Except it isn’t. All staff are on a wheelchair, have Down syndrome or work with an amputated arm. 

For the past two years, this has been happening for real in ten Belarusian cities where a barista training programme – called Inclusive Barista – took place. 

People with dwarfism, blindness, spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy – 50 participants in total – learned all the fundamental barista skills, from pouring great latte art to brewing perfectly consistent coffees. They then advanced their skills at coffee shops and barista contests. At least five of them are currently working at catering events around the country.

It was at a national barista championship in Minsk when Sasha Avdevich came up with an idea that this job is just fine for someone with a disability. Since employment for them is a problem, he wanted to help.

“Around 80 per cent of my friends in a wheelchair don’t have a job. If they can earn some fast cash at a catering event, everyone will be happy,” says Avdevich, currently a Volunteer Inclusion and Disabilities Officer with the United Nations Development Programme.

Defining and measuring the unemployment rate is tricky. In Belarus, according to official statistics, only 60 per cent of working-age adults with disabilities are in employment. It coincides with the global data on disabled workers in industrialised countries.

But for those classified as most severely disabled, which can mean being blind, deaf or wheelchair-bound, the figure is less than ten per cent, explains Sergey Drozdovsky, director of the non-governmental Belarusian Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He believes that every person retains an ability to work, but they simply can’t find a job due to stereotypes and social stigma. If they do, these are usually the lowest-paying professions with no career prospects, such as janitors and elevator operators.

So the barista school looked like a snazzy idea. It became a success covered all over by national media. In January 2020, Avdevich received a special “Regional Event” award for launching the project in smaller towns. The award came from an association of non-governmental organisations in Belarus, which every year honours most prominent civil initiatives.

So, what’s next? By the end of February, Avdevich, whose contract with the UN is ending, is opening a cafe. The name – you guessed it – Inclusive Barista. It will be the only coffee shop in Belarus entirely run by people with disabilities.

From a coffee shop to a franchise chain

Sasha Avdevich is 35, with blonde hair and heavily tattooed arms. He is bold, funny and in your face, the sort of person you either like or don’t like, right away. He grew up in Lida, and for most of his life didn’t care much about people with disabilities.

And then at a high speed Sasha crashed his new motorbike into a street pole. Aged 27, he became paralysed from the chest down. It took him two years of rehabilitation, suicidal thoughts and denial before he learned how to be independent in a wheelchair. He now says it would have been easier for him to accept his trauma if there were more positive examples of people with disabilities who were successful, happy and satisfied with their lives.

Sasha became widely known in Belarus after travelling more than four thousand kilometres across Europe on a special hand bike, powered with his arms. In his hometown in Lida, he opened an inclusive gym with a trainer in a wheelchair and gave a portable wheelchair ramp as a gift to a local bank which they couldn’t install for months. After he posted a ramp-giving video on his YouTube channel, the bank decided to make all its branches in Lida handicap accessible.

He has huge plans for his coffee shop in Minsk. If it turns out to be profitable, Avdevich plans to make it a franchise, with coffee shops run by disabled all over the country. The same business model, strategy and quality.

“For all the hype we will have in the beginning, it is the quality of our products and services that will decide if we succeed in the long term. No one will buy coffee from people with disabilities just because they are people with disabilities,” Avdevich cuts it short.

His cafe is located inside a branch of Belagroprombank, one of the largest commercial banks in Belarus. There’s no coincidence to that. The bank directors were looking for ways to reimagine banking and make their offices more attractive. Avdevich needed a busy place with reasonable rent in the city centre. And so the stars aligned: the new cafe will be located on the same floor where bank customers make deposits and take loans. Now with a cup of coffee.

Besides, the bank embraces its corporate responsibility by consulting Avdevich on a business model, planning and organising future business activities, and choosing partners. It will help with a franchise and loans, too. But the cafe exists independently. 

Success is a mutual interest. “Money is usually the main issue when starting a business. If we help a promising business solve this problem, this will be a completely different relationship in the future. It will form a different loyalty,” tells me Dmitry Primak, head of the small and medium business division at Belagroprombank.

There are already successful examples, such as Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, which was founded in 2016, in North Carolina in the United States. It is run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. With additional shops opened in three other states, it employs at least 100 individuals. Besides, an American organisation Boots to Business helps disabled veterans pursue entrepreneurship as they transfer to civilian life.

His cafe will employ only two baristas for now because Avdevich “just can’t give a job to everyone at the moment.” He hopes that the franchise will be a solution since there is already a network of trained baristas with disabilities across the country.

The scale of the problem

This coffee business is personal for Avdevich. He says that every person with visible or non-visible disabilities in Belarus faces some discrimination in employment. In fact, every person interviewed for this story mentioned it, too.

Such as Aleksandra Chichikova, the first Miss Wheelchair World and an inclusion activist. She tells me that she started looking for a job while still a student. At first, she did not mention in her resume that she uses a wheelchair, and potential employers queued up. But when during a phone call they heard she would need a wheelchair ramp, they turned her down for a job. In Belarus, the government’s financial assistance amounts to around $100, which was not enough for a young woman in her 20s. It is hardly enough for anyone. Chichikova eventually found a way out but needed to complete additional training. Her last job was in the gaming industry as a project manager.

The national labour laws prohibit any form of discrimination in employment. In reality, however, there is no special protection for severely disabled people against dismissal. Neither are there mechanisms of protection for those who were refused to get hired on the grounds of their health condition. It is nearly impossible to win a potential employment discrimination lawsuit because courts do not enforce it, says Sergey Drozdovsky whose Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities monitors discrimination cases. 

It comes in various forms. Of course, an employer would never admit that a worker was sacked because of her or his disability. But they can suddenly change a working schedule to that extent that it becomes impossible for a person with a disability to work, or refuse to extend the contract. There’s also psychological pressure from both employers and co-workers.

Besides, discrimination exists in access to education. In recent years the number of people with disabilities enrolled in higher education was less than a thousand, which is 0,3 per cent of all students. Of course, there are physical barriers and campuses are not adapted. 

But there is also MREC, which stands for the Medical and Rehabilitation Expert Commission. This state body, created back in 1946, decides in each case whether a person can study or work because of their disability. An aspiring film director Aleksandra Harodnikava was denied the right to study at an academy of arts because she is a wheelchair user, she tells me over the phone. As a result, she currently works as a home-based sales manager yet still dreams of filming.

The coffee shop as a solution

So, the professional barista is supposed to solve some of these problems.

“It is easy to learn. And there will always be a need for a cup of coffee,” says Sasha Avdevich.

Indeed, the barista school lasted exactly five days, so one doesn’t need a college degree to get into this profession. The starting monthly salary at the Avdevich’s cafe will be 700 Belarusian rubles (around $330), which is comparable to other barista job offers in Minsk (for example, here: https://jobs.tut.by/vacancies/barista). And there is Barista Magazine. There is the World Barista Championship. A whole barista culture has grown up.

But when a person is disabled, there’s another layer of risk: will they be subject to abuse or bullying because of their disability? Stares, glares, shocked faces. In a video described in the beginning of this story, when a group of friends entered a cafe, one of them stopped in his tracks, attentively observing the scene. The man was totally puzzled, seeing disabled workers. Two years ago, that video was filmed to promote the launch of the Inclusive Barista school. 

Natasha Astanina tells me she never encountered any negative reactions from neither her employers nor other members of the public when worked at a coffee shop in her hometown. “People were curious and wanted to pop in to see who worked there,” she says.

Astanina, the former Inclusive Barista school student, is one of Avdevich’s employees. She is 24 and from Lida, the city in western Belarus. Being a wheelchair user since early childhood, she nevertheless takes part in skydiving competitions and para dance sport contests internationally. A teacher of additional education, she was not necessarily looking for employment when learned about the barista school. Nor was she a coffee addict. She was just curious. “My coffee drinking skills always depended on my mood,” she laughs. “But when there’s a chance to learn something new, I don’t want to miss it.” 

She got subsequently hired by a coffee shop in Lida. Even though it was largely adapted for her needs, there was not enough space to move in a wheelchair, and she still needed help at the bar rack that was built too high for her. 

In that Minsk cafe, she and Avdevich want to avoid these curbs. The interior is entirely designed for baristas in a wheelchair. Coffee machines are placed on the level that will allow operating them. There will be a couch to lie down and relieve back pain, which is crucial for a wheelchair user. Of course, the area is disabled-friendly, with a lift to get inside, a wider door and an accessible toilet.

Not everybody is an entrepreneur

The cafe in Minsk is the only one run by disabled. But not the first one.

A year ago, Anna, Andrey and Dima, all wheelchair users, launched a to-go cafe in a shopping mall in Mogilev, a city in eastern Belarus. The decision was made spontaneously, during the Mogilev edition of the Inclusive Barista school. Sasha Avdevich was involved, too. He helped find the location, negotiated the rental costs. Media attention followed. 

In the beginning, it looked fine. After the first month, it was reported that the coffee shop produced a small profit. But after five months, it was closed.

Anna Ivanova, who was the brains behind the cafe in Mogilev, agreed to talk. “It happened for all sorts of reasons,” she says. The competition was fierce. Their coffee stand was not visible in the mall, and the director did not agree to an expansion. Advertising did not help either. Eventually, they couldn’t cover the rental costs of the space and a coffee machine with what they sold. There were ups and downs like in every business. “The rest of the team did not expect it to be so hard, so they decided to close the cafe,” she says.

Does she want to start over? Maybe. But Anna says openly: not every person with a disability is ready to start a business.

In case her judgement was too unpleasant, I asked Dmitry Primak from Belagroprombank whether he knows about that unsuccessful attempt. His response: businesses fail everywhere, despite what abilities somebody has. Embrace yourself to a countdown. “Every year, 40 thousand new business entities are created in the country. Only 10 per cent would survive in the first place, and there are even less left after several years,” he says. 

He believes that Avdevich has a successful business model that can be scaled up outside the capital. “Many such people [with disabilities] indeed don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs. Sasha’s example shows how a person can be active socially and economically and realise many great ideas.”

More should be done by the government

There are more than a half million people with disabilities in Belarus, which equates to six per cent of the population. They are not a tiny minority category. And yet there is not a single disabled person in the judiciary or at any level of government in Belarus. A successful role model hardly exists.

Igor Striga, whose business is built around the employment of people with disabilities, changes that image. The business Services Hypermarket 124 is essentially a customer support centre for various services, from cleaning to event management. Out of 50 employees, only a handful are non-disabled. Most of those working as contact centre specialists have some forms of physical disabilities, visual impairment or epilepsy. It is often the first job that a person with a disability gets. This is where Avdevich, Chichikova and Harodnikava worked, too.

Striga has been a wheelchair user for the last 25 years, after a car accident. Ten years ago, he was hired by 124 as a dispatcher. Then he headed the entire department purposefully created to employ disabled and quickly became the company’s boss. Back then, it was a revolutionary decision to recruit mainly employees with disabilities. Today, however, businesses may claim a tax deduction if 30 per cent of their staff are disabled. Despite that, it is still not trendy, Striga says.

“Who is worried about creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities? Mostly parents and non-governmental organisations. Not large-scale businesses,” he says. 

It may change in 2023 when a mandatory quota system is introduced in Belarus. Decades-old in some European countries, the policy obligates employers to have a workforce with a certain percentage of individuals with disabilities. The aims are clear and reasonable: create equal opportunities and integrate them into working life and society.

So, in three years, will there suddenly be all sorts of professionals with disabilities woven into the fabric of society, in every industry, every city, every education level, despite all sorts of restrictions? Striga is not enthusiastic. “We’ve socialised, helped adjust to the workplace and trained around 200 people with disabilities in the past ten years. The government is not interested in the experience we’ve gathered.”

In Belarus, there’s no comprehensive study that counts the costs of getting such people into work, supporting them, and reducing dependency. In Britain, the Foxes Academy that teaches young adults with learning disabilities to live semi-independently estimated that this investment reduces the bill of residential care, where they would otherwise end up, by around a third. It saves the government a lot of money.

This investment doesn’t have to be enormous, as the Inclusive Barista example shows. The school was financed by the EU and DVV International that jointly gave €20,000. For this amount of money, dozens of people got trained and reskilled. Some of them got employed, and a new cafe is now open. It also sent an important message of inclusion and made the disabled more visible in society.

There’s a neat and infuriating irony, but it can be a trap, too. What if now, for every employment agency, a person with a disability has to become a barista?

“It is like the belief that massage therapy should be a career choice for non-sighted people. Or that every wheelchair user can work as a software developer. As if everyone can write a code or dream of becoming a massage therapist,” says Sergey Drozdovsky.

The solution is this simple: people’s predispositions for certain skills must have impact on their career choices. However, it would require more system-level changes.

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