The goal of Backpacks for the Street and Together Helping Others is to offer hope and compassion to the city’s (oft-ignored) homeless population.
In the United States, around eighty percent of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed.
Amy and Ben Wright watched their two youngest children, Bitty and Beau, grow up with that statistic in mind. Bitty and Beau both have Downs Syndrome, and their parents knew future work opportunities for them would be limited.
“When you’re the parent of a child with special needs, you think about their future,” Amy Wright says.
“We decided to start a coffee shop to address the unemployment issue. In the process we discovered that the real problem is a lack of connection to marginalized people that continues a social stigma around people with disabilities. A coffee shop is one way to change that.”
The first Bitty and Beau’s Coffee opened in the Wright’s hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, in January 2016. Originally named Beau’s Coffee, Beau asked that Bitty’s name be added to the name for his twelfth birthday in mid-2016.
“We were in a small space, 500 square feet, and had 19 employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Wright says. “The day we opened we had lines around the building and we knew immediately we were going to outgrow the location.”
Since their initial opening, the original shop has moved into a 5,000 square feet space in Wilmington and two additional locations have opened in Charleston and Savannah, with additional plans for expansion.
“I’m not surprised by the reaction, because I think people were hungry for a way to connect with this population of people with disabilities and they didn’t know how,” Wright says.
“They were nervous about approaching someone and engaging, so part of the coffee shop is about creating that space where people can interact. I think the human spirit is hungry for those connections.”
With their larger space and additional shops, the company now employs more than 80 workers with disabilities.
Employees find Bitty and Beau’s through informational meetings and social media, then go through an interview that determines what position is the best fit.
“Most of our employees have never had a job and they range in age from high school to mid-fifties,” Wright says. “We look at their skill set and plug them in to four different positions where everyone works independently. We have people taking orders, making speciality drinks, calling out orders, and taking care of the dining room.”
With the success of Bitty and Beau’s, the Wright’s emphasize that people with disabilities should be employed across all spectrums of the economy, and not simply using their model.
“There are so many benefits to hiring people with disabilities. Many are working for the first time, so there’s simply a level of gratitude to their work that inspires the people around them,” Wright says.
“This is also sometimes about measuring productivity in a different way. When it’s not just about what gets done, but about how a worker makes other people feel. And that’s not to say people with disabilities can’t do great things — they can. Ultimately, it’s about having a diverse workplace, and we don’t see very many people with disabilities at most places.”
The Wright’s efforts to advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities expand into policy, where they’re working to abolish archaic laws allowing people with disabilities to be paid subminimum wages.
Amy’s husband Ben recently testified before a congressional panel titled “Supporting Economic Stability and Self-Sufficiency as Americans with Disabilities and Their Families Age,” arguing against the practice.
“They’re basically sheltered workshops,” Amy Wright says. “There’s a standard set on the time it takes a typically developing person to do a task and they compare that to the amount of time it takes a differently developing person to do that task and adjust their wage accordingly."
"People with disabilities are paid less for working the same amount of time. So, we are engaging in a bipartisan effort to change that. We pay all our employees above minimum wage and give people benefits and promotions.”
The Wrights plan to continue expanding Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, and working to lower unemployment for people with disabilities.
“We know our employees can do anything, and we’re working on shifting the culture so that other companies also include people with disabilities and get rid of preconceived notions of what people are capable of,” Wright says.
“People haven’t spent enough time together, but we have are seeing that happen now and it’s really encouraging to see people becoming part of the solution.”
The original Beau’s Coffee opened January 2016 in a 500 square foot space in Wilmington, NC. The shop was run by 19 employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities. With over 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) unemployed nationwide, Beau’s Coffee created a path for people with IDD to become more valued, accepted, and included in every community.Learn More
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