At Bitty & Beau’s coffee shop, customers might notice “we love you” or “you are awesome” written on the side of their cup of joe. These positive notes are emblematic of a culture of encouragement and inclusivity in the store, which is a space dedicated to primarily hiring people with disabilities.
The best part of the job is “being friendly to a lot of people and being kind,” said Ellie Bancroft, an employee at the Athens location.
The Athens franchise of Bitty & Beau’s opened in September 2021 under the leadership of Diana and Mike Langhorne, whose son, Sam, lives with disabilities. Before opening the store, the Langhornes, like countless other families, were faced with a jarring statistic: that 79% of people with disabilities are unemployed.
It’s society’s underestimation of what people with disabilities can do,” said Langhorne.
Best friends Grace Callaway, 24, and Ellie Bancroft, 24, love working together behind the counter at Bitty & Beau’s. Whether manning the register or calling out drink orders, Callaway and Bancroft bring energy and excitement to the store.
Bitty & Beau’s has a prime location in Five Points, less than a mile from Tate Student Center, and attracts a lively atmosphere of UGA students working on group projects or typing away on computers.
This community-building is intentional as the owners prioritize student outreach with events on game days, holiday parties, and even handing out free cups of coffee on campus for school events.
“[College students] include them, they engage with them, and they treat them like anybody else,” said Langhorne.
The term “radically inclusive,” which is scattered on merchandise throughout the store, captures the core mission of Bitty & Beau’s. The message inspires a sense of community and inclusivity for customers and employees alike, regardless of their background.
Founded in 2016 by Amy and Ben Wright, Bitty & Beau’s has gained national attention for empowering people with disabilities and combating workplace disability discrimination. According to their website, their mission is to advocate “for the value, acceptance, and inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
People without a disability are three times more likely to be employed than people with at least one disability. Unfortunately, COVID-19 also exacerbated this employment gap, causing a dip after years of steady increases of employment for people with disabilities, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Employees with disabilities “work fewer hours, earn lower incomes, and accumulate less wealth than their counterparts without at least one disability,” according to the Center for American Progress.
The hiring process can prove to be very challenging, as many companies are unable or unwilling to provide necessary accommodations or resources to support the employment of people with disabilities.
“They want to work desperately,” said Langhorne about his son. “For instance, Sam. His brother gets a paycheck, his sister gets a paycheck… [Now] all he knows is that he got one too.”
The National Disability Institute reports that people with disabilities may face an increased risk of poverty due to a lack of adequate employment opportunities, costly medical bills, and lower levels of educational attainment.
Furthermore, the effects of intersectionality are also prevalent in statistics related to disability discrimination. People of color with disabilities experience compounded effects of discrimination and have overall poorer outcomes.
On A Mission
Bitty & Beau’s has set out to challenge the systemic barriers and biases that work against people with disabilities within the labor market. Hiring employees with disabilities is the first step, but the training and professional development is equally important.
The training program at Bitty & Beau’s allows people to show their strengths and gradually progress to greater roles. Employees, Langhorne says, are always looking for more ways to engage with customers, help out around the store, and take on greater responsibilities.
Emily Morris, a 2021 University of Georgia graduate, is a store supervisor in Bitty & Beau’s Athens’ location. Supervisors are responsible for monitoring the shop, while also allowing employees to be as “independent as possible.”
“Employees with disabilities are more than capable of completing any job, you just have to make it accessible for them,” Morris said.
One way that Bitty & Beau’s models an inclusive work environment is by ensuring accessibility for all employees in their stores. There is a wheelchair ramp leading to the store, visual reminders on how to greet customers, and clear systems for placing and distributing orders.
Professional development is a key aspect of empowering employees with disabilities. Both Langhorne and Morris said that they have seen employees grow in confidence and develop professional skills throughout their employment.
Eva Pound is a senior majoring in journalism and international affairs.
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