COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new coffee shop is moving into downtown Columbia, but the unique business model has some disability rights advocates concerned.

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee is a national chain of coffee shops that predominantly hires people with developmental and intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism.

The company boasts the slogan “a human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop.”

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Leaders at Able SC, a statewide policy group that advocates for disability rights, were concerned about the February 2022 announcement that Bitty and Beau’s planned to open a shop in Columbia, the group’s CEO Kimberly Tissot said.

Tissot said she worried that employees with disabilities would be used like props, meant to offer customers smiles and hugs but not to be taken seriously as people. Businesses that employ only people with disabilities have also been known to pay below minimum wage because of a federal waiver that allows it, other disability rights advocates said.

But Bitty and Beau’s Coffee co-founder Amy Wright, who founded the business with her husband in honor of two of her children who have Down syndrome, said those concerns come from misconceptions, not facts, about the business.

A new downtown business

Amy and Ben Wright opened the first Bitty and Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington, N.C., in 2016, after learning that between 70-80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were unemployed.

Three of the couple’s four children have a disability. Their youngest children, Bitty and Beau, have Down syndrome, and their daughter Lillie has autism.

“Imagine any other group where seven of 10 people didn’t have jobs; people would take to the streets,” Ben Wright testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in 2018, during a hearing focused on policy for people with disabilities. “And yet in regards to this group of unemployed people, there is no outrage from the majority of the American citizenry, only bewilderment on the faces of those who endure this discrimination and hopelessness in the eyes of those who love and advocate for them.”

The year prior, Amy Wright received the 2017 CNN Hero of the Year award for Bitty and Beau’s, an honor bestowed to everyday people making a difference in their communities.

Today, their coffee chain has 19 stores in 11 states, including one in Charleston.

In February 2022, the company announced it was planning to open a shop in Columbia in partnership with Margaret Deans Grantz, the co-founder of Camp Cole, a Midlands camp and retreat center that serves people with illnesses and disabilities. Grantz said she is no longer planning to open the shop. Now, another family is working with the Wrights on the store.

Amy Wright categorically denied any accusation that the company pays below minimum wage, adding that the company has always been opposed to that practice. South Carolina passed a law in 2022 banning any business from using the federal waiver that allows some people with disabilities to be paid below minimum wage. Wright said even without that law her company would pay employees above minimum wage.

Some of the skepticism about Bitty and Beau’s comes from a 2016-2017 incident in which Bitty and Beau’s Coffee was cited by the U.S. Department of Labor for an unpaid internship program.

The company started prospective employees on a six-week unpaid internship to see if they were a good fit, Wright said at the time. Unpaid interns can’t participate in interstate commerce, so when some of the interns handled credit card transactions for out-of-state customers, it violated the law.

The company was ordered to pay $2,200 in back wages for some of the interns, but Wright said they paid the back wages for all the interns and then eliminated the unpaid internship program entirely.

Now, they staff the stores by holding one-day hiring events. No prior experience is necessary, and applicants are asked about their goals and what skills they want to focus on growing, Amy Wright explained in an interview with The State.

Most stores start with 20 to 30 employees and then grow as necessary, Wright added.

But critics say even if employees are earning a fair income, the store sends the wrong message to people without disabilities.

“It kind of plays off the heartstrings to get people to open their wallets,” said Crush Rush, a local disability rights advocate and Able SC board member. “It becomes inspiration porn.”

‘Inspiration porn’

The Australian disability rights activist and comedian Stella Young coined the term “inspiration porn” in the early 2010s. In a 2014 Ted Talk, she elaborated on the concept using anecdotes from her life.

Because of a genetic disease, Young used a wheelchair most of her life. In her talk, she explained that she would often be acknowledged as exceptional for doing normal tasks, such as helping her mom at the family business.

One day she was teaching a high school class and a student asked when her motivational speech was going to begin. But she wasn’t there to give a motivational speech, she was there to teach on defamation law.

“And that’s when it dawned on me: This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration,” Young said in her Ted Talk. “For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We’re not real people. We are there to inspire.”

Local disability rights advocates say Bitty and Beau’s creates an environment where inspiration is the goal.

“The idea of inspiration porn is having depictions that are meant to use disabled people to make non-disabled people feel good or reduce disabled people into some kind of, like, objects of inspiration,” said e.k. hoffman, the associate director of New Disabled South Rising.

New Disabled South Rising is a regional organization that advocates for a variety of policy solutions across the South to address discrimination and other problems faced by many people with disabilities. The group’s leaders, including hoffman, all have disabilities.

“Something that is really important and has long been a rallying cry in the disability rights movement is ‘nothing about us without us,'” hoffman said, adding that many people feel Bitty and Beau’s doesn’t have enough people with disabilities in leadership positions.

“It’s not a very good representation of our community,” said Carrie McWhorter, founder of the mutual aid organization for people with disabilities Access Abolition SC. McWorter has physical and intellectual disabilities. “You don’t have to put people with disabilities on display to prove they’re capable.”

Wright argued that the business actively combats inspiration porn by letting employees speak for themselves.

“If you go to our social media pages, you will see video after video of (employees) in their own voice talking. They have the freedom to share their experiences, their achievements, their struggles in their own words, which is the exact opposite of what inspiration porn is,” Wright said.

She added that employees with disabilities are often promoted to leadership positions in the stores and that several of their corporate leaders also have disabilities.

Employment first

The concerns are more than philosophical, Tissot and others say.

Able SC recently won a long-fought victory to get South Carolina to adopt “employment first” policies geared toward connecting people with disabilities to the general workforce.

In 2022, just 21% of people with disabilities across the U.S. were employed, compared to more than 65% employment for people without a disability, according to federal data. Employment first is a nationwide policy movement that encourages social services workers to look at helping people with disabilities find work before jumping to public assistance programs.

Bitty and Beau’s reports employing more than 400 people, most of whom have disabilities.

Despite the data, Tissot sees the business and those like it as counterproductive because she said the business segregates people with disabilities. She said that segregation can lead typically-developing people to think people with disabilities can only succeed in those environments. Tissot has a physical disability and a 13-year-old son with an intellectual disability.

“I’m seeing a lot of parents who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities speak for their children, but saying, ‘Oh, I’m so happy, now my son or daughter has a place to work,'” Tissot said. “They have a place to work anywhere. We just have to educate the community.”

Wright disagreed with the characterization that Bitty and Beau’s is a segregated environment, noting people with and without disabilities work at every store. She also argued that part of Bitty and Beau’s mission isn’t to necessarily keep people employed at the coffee shop permanently, but to show customers that people with disabilities are more capable than many may assume.

“The point of Bitty and Beau’s Coffee is not that people with (intellectual and developmental disabilities) can work in coffee shops, but that people with and without (disabilities) could and should be working together, shoulder to shoulder, in almost every type of business,” Ben Wright said during his 2018 Senate committee testimony.

Amy Wright added, “I really wish those same disability advocates would take that frustration they are feeling and direct it toward other businesses in Columbia that don’t hire anyone with a disability.”

Future plans

There are plenty of people celebrating Bitty and Beau’s move into Columbia. A Facebook post by the business has been shared more than 500 times announcing that a Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop would be moving into 1001 Gervais St., the former site of Marble Slab Creamery. Special Olympics South Carolina has shared positive reactions to the news, and a number of people have reported wanting their children to work at the store.

“This is fabulous & much needed in our capital city!” wrote one commenter.

“This is wonderful news. I can’t wait to be a regular customer. Rosemary can’t wait until she is old enough to be an employee!” another person wrote.

“Woohoo we can’t wait my daughter is so excited to be (a part) of your team,” another commenter wrote.

Critics say there were also plenty of negative comments on that post, but the comments have been deleted, they claim.

Those critics say they won’t be supporting the business and that they plan to continue urging residents to avoid it once it opens. An opening date has not yet been announced.

“It’s non-disabled people trying to put a Band-Aid on something, but we’re not asking for a Band-Aid. We’re asking for a systemic fix across the board to ensure that people with disabilities really and truly do have equal employment opportunities,” Tissot said.

Editor’s Note: e.k. hoffman uses lowercase letters to spell their name.

© 2023 The State
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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