July 6, 2022

Is the coffee industry accessible for people with disabilities?


According to the World Health Organisation, around 15% of the global population (representing about 1 billion people) currently experience some form of disability. And with an ageing global population and increasing rates of chronic diseases, the number of people living with a disability is set to rise over the coming years.

The world, however, can be largely ill-equipped when it comes to accounting for the needs of people with disabilities, especially in workplaces. This can mean anything from inaccessible physical spaces, to a lack of appropriate equipment or inadequate hiring policies.

The coffee sector is no exception to this, but as a people-centric industry, there are arguably more opportunities for people with disabilities in coffee than other work environments. 

To learn more, I spoke to two coffee professionals. Read on to find out what they had to say about accessibility and inclusivity in the coffee industry.

You may also like our article on how to make your coffee shop more accessible.

coffee workshop for people with disabilities

People with disabilities and the wider workforce

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the legal definition of a person with a disability is someone “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”. 

It’s important to note that there are a number of disabilities that people experience. These include – but aren’t limited to – mobility, intellectual, mental health, chronic illnesses, and hearing and vision impairments. It’s necessary that we acknowledge the diversity across different forms of disability, particularly in the workplace.

In lower-income countries, according to the United Nations, between 80% and 90% of working age people who experience disabilities are unemployed. In middle-income countries, this figure is between 50% and 70%.

In higher-income countries, the official unemployment rate varies, but is generally at least twice the unemployment rate than the general population.

False perceptions and assumptions about disabilities, as well as fear and prejudice, can limit employers’ understanding of how to hire people experiencing disabilities. For example, wrongly assuming that people with disabilities are unable to work, or that accommodating them in the workplace is expensive, is a huge obstacle to positive change.

This of course leads to a discussion about ableism. The support organisation Access Living defines this as “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior”.

Awareness campaigns and an ongoing push for more representation of different disabilities – especially at decision-making levels – are just some of the ways to address this issue.

man with disability studying about coffee

Is the coffee sector accessible enough?

Lack of representation and reduced accessibility for people with disabilities are unfortunately common in all global industries. 

Physical spaces for both workers and customers can be inaccessible for those who have mobility disabilities, as well as hearing and vision impairments. Alongside physical inaccessibility, hiring policies, work schedules, and overall workload expectations are rarely designed to accommodate people with any type of disability.

Rich “Bear” Gardner is the founder of Bear Essentials Coffee: a project that he says helped him to overcome his illnesses and mental health issues.

Bear tells me that when he started suffering from a complex medical condition which causes regular episodes of whole body paralysis, he had to accept that he would no longer be able to work in a conventional manner. 

However, he adds that the coffee industry can be difficult for those with disabilities, especially barista work, as it requires long hours and is usually a fast-paced work environment.

“When [the specialty coffee sector first] started, you [rarely] saw anyone behind the counter who wasn’t white, young, and able-bodied,” Bear tells me. “[The sector] has become more inclusive in many areas, but not so much in terms of disability inclusion.”

He tells me that he and his wife Emily Gardner, who also lives with disabilities, launched an educational programme which supports brands looking to be more inclusive of people with disabilities in coffee. 

However, Bear tells me that while many companies initially supported the initiative, he found there was little financial investment to implement it.

“We can’t have groups which have no representation [of people with disabilities] making decisions on behalf of those people,” he explains. “We need people who have actually faced barriers to employment in those spaces.”

Without representation at higher decision-making levels, efforts to create a more accessible coffee industry will remain superficial at best. 

woman teaching a class on coffee skills

Can coffee be an accessible career option?

Many consider the coffee sector to be inclusive and to have opportunities for people from a range of backgrounds. In particular, there is diversity within job roles, such as roasters, baristas, coffee shop managers, traders, marketers, and producers.

“If I were to pick one industry [that is more inclusive and accessible for a number of people], it would be the coffee sector,” Bear says. “It’s creative, innovative, and it has a desire to break barriers to do something different. 

“This passion for change is why the coffee industry is an accessible place for people with disabilities,” he adds.

Veronica Grimm is the founder of Glitter Cat Barista, a non-profit organisation that provides free training and resources to marginalised coffee and hospitality professionals. 

She feels that the coffee industry is a place where self-care and mental illness are prioritised more than other sectors. 

“These kinds of conversations are starting to happen, albeit not enough,” she says. “[When staff say that they’re not able to come into work because of mental illness disabilities], it’s being taken more seriously [than it used to be a few years ago].”

To accommodate this, coffee businesses can design their premises to be more accessible. As well as implementing more disability-inclusive practices in the hiring process, adding a wheelchair ramp, an accessible toilet, double-level or hydraulic counters with adjustable heights, or different light settings can be more accommodating for people with a variety of disabilities.

“[Coffee business owners should] consider what the job requirements are, what the overall team needs, and what is needed to allow more people to access these job roles,” Veronica says.

A man and a woman discuss training opportunities.

What are the foundations for a truly accessible coffee industry?

In order to create a more inclusive and accessible coffee industry, the perspectives and inputs of people experiencing disabilities must be included at the planning, hiring, and management levels.

Bear tells me that this is especially important. Rather than assuming the needs of people with disabilities, coffee shop owners can hear them directly from the people themselves.

“You need feedback from the group in question, because disabilities have so many levels,” he says. “The people making the change must be willing to listen, and the people with disabilities need to be willing to speak about them.”

However, implementing short-term changes isn’t sustainable. Hiring people with disabilities at a higher level in a coffee company, such as management, and asking for their honest feedback and contribution is far more likely to result in systemic change that will make a positive difference.

As well as this, Veronica believes that visible representation of disabilities is essential.

“It’s exhausting to see marginalised people being taken advantage of or rejected [in the workplace],” she says. “Our motto at Glitter Cat is ‘take up space’. We’re talking to marginalised people who need to be represented at all levels, including decision-making. 

“You have to take action to see change, you can’t sit back and watch others do it,” she adds.

baristas with disabilities speaking sign language

Taking further steps to be more inclusive

Veronica highlights how important it is to plan ahead when considering the needs of people with disabilities. She tells me that Glitter Cat takes great care to ensure all training and services are accessible to everyone.

Speaking from her own experience, she says that Glitter Cat hosted a roasting competition which used a manual coffee roaster. This meant that the coffee needed to be continuously moved over a stove for 15 minutes. 

“Contestants with disabilities were unable to do this; we hadn’t taken this into consideration,” she explains. “We came up with solutions, but we should have anticipated it. It was a real lesson [for us].”

While accommodations for people with disabilities can be implemented in the short-term, long-term solutions can come from careful planning and more thoughtful design and infrastructure. Audio-visual support systems, such as audio induction loops or braille menus, can be used by both baristas and customers, for example.

Coffee shops can also be more upfront about the requirements of a job role. For instance, a job description should list responsibilities, expected working hours, salary range, and how physically accessible the work environment is.

Alongside this, more open and clear communication is key. Bear tells me that the aim of Bear Essentials Coffee is to provide a platform where someone with disabilities is able to openly ask any question – without fear of rejection or discrimination.

“Some people aren’t aware of the possibilities, infrastructure, and tools available [to be more accessible and inclusive],” Bear says. “For instance, for someone who has co-ordination issues, [coffee shop owners can] invest in a distribution tool [for making espresso]. 

“By doing so, you can easily provide more employment opportunities to]people with motor disabilities,” he adds. 

And while small changes are important, larger structural changes are also required, especially spreading awareness on the rights of people with disabilities.

“We need to re-evaluate the value of employees,” Bear says. “We need to stop defining productivity in terms of how many hours can be worked, because it can lead to burnout and it’s an exclusive approach.”

Woman shows man how to pour water into an cezve coffee pot.

The employment gap for people living with disabilities needs to be addressed, including in the coffee sector. While improving representation is an essential part of this, it is only the first step.

If you are a coffee business owner, consider how your brand can be more accessible and inclusive for a range of people. Start by assessing your hiring processes, but most importantly, listen to the needs of those experiencing disabilities – whether they are staff or customers.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on women in coffee co-operatives.

Photo credits: Bear Essentials Coffee, Glitter Cat Barista

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