Long read / Uncategorized

Working with a handicap: can we cross out “-cap”?

9 to 5 The Time Of Your Life


Restaurants that employ people with disabilities are opening in cities like Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lisbon, and New York. Beyond simply providing job opportunities, the goal is to integrate these workers into the heart of economic and social life and thereby redefine social norms and what it means to be perfect.

“Welcome to Café Joyeux!” smiles 29-year-old Julien. Clad in his service uniform—a black cap, shirt, and apron emblazoned with the café chain’s logo—this employee with Down’s syndrome takes orders behind the cash register, deftly placing a small colored cube on each guest’s tray. “And enjoy!” he adds cheerfully as the customers collect their trays. Situated in Lyon, France’s bustling second arrondissement in the heart of the city’s vibrant shopping district, Café Joyeux is one of 16 establishments across Paris, the French provinces, and even abroad (with the latest location opening in New York). The concept? To employ individuals with mental and cognitive disabilities in city center cafés, reintegrating this “marginalized” population into the fabric of daily life

An empowering environment for increased autonomy 

At Café Joyeux in Lyon, colored cubes placed on the trays help the eight team members both locate and deliver customer orders and gain efficiency. After delivering an order of coffees, Julien diligently returns to the cash register. “I also greet customers and wash dishes,” he explains. “I feel good here, I like it.” Previously, Julien was employed by an ESAT (Establishments and Support Services for Employment). “It offered less variety in a more sheltered environment. I wanted to work for a real company and have my own income,” Julien explains. His aspirations extend to establishing and managing his own business in the future.

“The team members at Café Joyeux have dreams just like everyone else,” states Anne Ogereau, the manager of the Lyon’s branch since September 2023. “They are gaining confidence and becoming increasingly independent through their experiences here.” Each employee, recruited based on their personal interest in the job, undergoes a comprehensive two-year training program at the CFAJ (Training Center for “Joyeux” apprentices). During the training, they learn about hygiene standards, cooking techniques, customer service, catering operations, and dishwashing, to name a few. “Each member becomes proficient in multiple areas,” Anne explains. For clarity’s sake, each task—whether it’s making a coffee, cleaning a table, or serving a slice of cake—is explained with visual aids such as pictograms and photographs. “We provide a structured framework with detailed explanations for everything, which really helps our team members,” Anne adds.

The team members at Café Joyeux have dreams just like everyone else. They are gaining confidence and becoming increasingly independent through their experiences here

Anne Ogereau, the manager of the Lyon’s branch

“Here, they matter.”

Further south, nestled along the picturesque Côte Bleue just north of Marseille, the Train Inc Café found its home in the former SNCF Niolon train station in January 2023. This multifaceted establishment combines elements of a café, restaurant, bed & breakfast, and seasonal performing arts venue. Founded by the “T Cap 21” association, this inclusive enterprise employs five individuals with disabilities alongside two trainers, all bustling in the kitchen on this particular morning. Among them is Lucie, a 25-year-old with Down’s syndrome, who is in the middle of preparing a sweet potato. “She’s a pro at peeling!” exclaims David, one of the trainers, with evident enthusiasm. “Lucie’s a natural,” agrees Christelle, her teammate. Amidst their cheerful banter and exchanges of advice, David instructs Dylan, another 30-year-old with Down’s syndrome, on the use of an ingredient to balance flavors in the broth he’s enthusiastically stirring.

Katia Bergameli, the association’s president, strides into the bustling kitchen, where she orchestrates operations like a seasoned conductor. Amidst checking on progress, preparing guest rooms for a corporate event, and coordinating paddle or flamenco activities for breaks, she embodies the spirit of the association’s name: “You’re capable, even with your chromosome 21.” This ethos extends to every aspect of the 380-square-meter train station-turned-community hub, where individuals are empowered to cook, serve, navigate independently, and manage activities. “Initially, we were families with young people sidelined due to their condition,” explains Katia, who is also the mother of Lucie, one of the talented cooks. “We were tired of our youth being overlooked,” she adds, “here, they’re visible, with real contracts and fulfilling livelihoods.”

Take 21-year-old Théophile, who has been part of the Train Inc Café team for five months now, clocking in two days a week. “What do I like most? Interacting with customers. And shaking it on the dance floor!” he says, shaking his hips. “But, you know, sometimes it’s a bit…” (his hand movements indicate a fast-paced rhythm). “When that happens, I can get a bit flustered, things escalate quickly.” This is also the case at Café Joyeux in Lyon: “Sometimes it gets tough, especially with the hours,” shares Julien, “I can get on edge with managers or other team members, but I try to roll with it.” Saturdays are particularly hectic: “It’s a challenge for everyone to handle the pace. There are occasional meltdowns or issues. One team member left after only a month because it was too intense,” adds Anne.

Facing workplace realities

Since the employees all have diverse backgrounds, it’s not always easy to find common ground, especially in an environment that already places young people in a demanding professional setting. “It’s a bit complicated between Théophile and Dylan because they have different disabilities, so they don’t understand each other in the same way,” explains Christelle, their trainer. “It demands a great deal of patience,” adds Anne, manager of Café Joyeux, “among our 8 team members, each person has their own way of experiencing their disability.” A psychologist specializing in disabilities provides remote support to all Café Joyeux establishments to help address these daily challenges. 

Another challenge: “When it’s mealtime and the young ones are supposed to serve and wait their turn to eat, some have already taken a bite from the customer’s plate,” Christelle adds. “The trick? Take it slow and ensure they all take turns.” The former bakery manager admits she sometimes loses her cool: “It can be draining, especially mentally.” “Each young person needs tailored support,” Katia Bergameli chimes in, “when there are too many young people at once, things get complicated.” Having a large team to handle service while accommodating everyone’s needs is crucial for maintaining a successful balance, both for the youth and the supervising team.

The concept? To employ individuals with mental and cognitive disabilities in city center cafés, reintegrating this “marginalized” population into the fabric of daily life

A positive impact on the youth and their families

Despite the challenges, these experiments with inclusive cafés are also paying off, especially for the young staff members. Julien now sees himself as “very skilled” though he admits there are still “areas to improve, like being more attentive to the team” as he aims to become a manager himself. “The team members are happy to prove that it’s possible for them to work like everyone else,” adds Anne, his supervisor. “When one of them tells me they managed to navigate the subway alone to get to work, it’s a victory.” Katia Bergameli from Train Inc Café concludes, “Today, Lucie can swim, ride a bike: she’s surrounded by support and thriving. She even found a boyfriend that works with her on the team!” 

On a larger scale, these life changes also impact the families of youth with disabilities. “As parents, we do everything to ensure that our children have a normal life,” explains Bernard, the father of Thibaud, a team member at Café Joyeux. “This gives him real life experience and allows him to gain independence.” Bernard and his wife, whose son lives with them, acknowledge, “It is a relief for us and the future holds promise. We believe that one day he will be completely independent.” Another parent reveals that her son’s work has allowed her family to find harmony.”My parents and my sisters are proud of me, of my progress,” Julien confirms.

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Redefining our ideas of perfection

Marie and Emma, two students from Lyon, study with their steaming mugs of coffee at Café Joyeux. “This concept is brilliant!” they exclaim. “It’s important that these people also have access to employment and that they can flourish there.” Anne, the manager, adds, “Customers look at people with disabilities differently. They even tell us that it’s good to slow down; many come here for that.” Even though sometimes impatience can be felt when orders are delayed or the service isn’t perfect: “We have to accept that it’s imperfect,” Anne says. In Japan, they have taken the concept to the next level: The “Restaurant of Inaccurate Orders” hires servers with cognitive degeneration: 37% of the dishes served are not those that were initially ordered by the customers, but 99% of them are delighted regardless.

“We need more places like this,” confirms Charlotte, 26, a regular of Café Joyeux who comes in almost every day. “I would be willing to work with people with disabilities; I would like to see it develop,” she adds. And that’s precisely the idea that drives Katia Bergameli of Train Inc Café. “Here, it’s a stepping stone. We then have a handful of restaurants ready to welcome our young people, like Le Rep in Marseille.” Is this business model a kind of utopia? “It’s possible if the company is willing to play along and doesn’t demand the same level of productivity as they would from an able-bodied person,” explains Katia. “The goal is for them not to be isolated but integrated with others.” In other words, putting those who are marginalized back in the center of things.


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