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'They really can rise to the occasion' | Athens coffee shop creates workplace for people living with disabilities

Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shop is the only place in the Classic City that primarily hires people living with disabilities.

ATHENS, Ga. — A coffee shop in Athens is forging a path to create a more inclusive workforce for people living with disabilities. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics outlines that over 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed nationwide, but Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shop is the only place in the Classic City that primarily hires people from this community.

Amy Wright founded the coffee house with her husband Ben, and she said advocating for this community has always been a personal effort to find a way to lessen the many gaps and stigmas that people living with disabilities face in the everyday world. 

“Our two youngest children Bitty and Beau both have Down’s Syndrome, '' she told said. “One of the obstacles people with disabilities face in our countries is meaningful employment, and we started thinking ahead to their future and what did that look like.”

Knowing the statistics, they found different outlets to advocate for the community and bring awareness to the struggles people living with disabilities face when trying to find employment - but none of them resonated until the idea of a coffee shop came to mind. 

“We did walks, we did concerts, we did blogging - we were trying to reach people with this message, and it hit me one day in the shower that maybe the best way to do it is to create this workplace where people with disabilities could interact with typically developing people as guests, and bring people together,” Wright said.  

Their goal was to create a space where people with disabilities can be seen and accepted while also learning valuable workforce skills. So in 2016 Wright, along with her husband, opened their first Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina.

It was an overwhelming success, they said, and over the past six years, the pair have built a community of education and acceptance where anyone who enters the shop leaves with more than just a cup of coffee.

“For so many families who get that diagnosis, they don't know what their child's future looks like, and when they come into one of our coffee shops and they see someone behind the bar with Down's Syndrome making drinks and calling out orders, it gives them a glimpse at what's possible for their child's future,” Wright explained.

For many of their employees, Bitty & Beau’s is the first job they ever had, but although it can be a learning experience for the workers, Wright says with enough support and training, they always exceed expectations. 

“It's amazing when you give someone with disabilities an opportunity, they really can rise to the occasion. And, you know, that's what we're really trying to do in the coffee shops is show the world what's possible when you give people with a disability a chance,” she said.

So far, the response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive and every time a new shop opens, Wright says they have to shut down the street to accommodate the growing crowd.

“We hear from people immediately that are so excited whether they want to be a patron or their child's looking for a job. There's been just an enormous amount of support," Wright said.

Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shop chain has expanded to 24 cities nationwide and they employ more than 200 people. Their shop also sells its own merchandise including its own brand of coffee, apparel and even dog collars. And with even more surprises to come - including more grand openings - Wright said the future of Bitty & Beau’s is looking bright.

“I hope we're a household name. I hope that people seek out our shops and want to come and visit and have this wonderful experience, and through all of that, I hope that people begin to see people with disabilities as valued people," Wright said.

In the meantime, she wants everyone to stop by for a cup of coffee and maybe even show off some moves.

“You might be invited to a spontaneous dance party or a conga line. Lots of high fives, lots of interaction and eye contact," Wright said. "We want people to really spend time with our employees. And so we look forward to new guests!”

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