Smiling waitress with down syndrome serves a customer in a cafe.
Image credit: jacoblund on

Not long ago, I had the fortune to visit Paris. Next to the Arc de Triomphe in Champs-Elysées, I ate at a place called Café Joyeux, where people with all kinds of disabilities were on staff serving patrons. 

At the counter, a cashier who had Down syndrome took my order: a butter croissant and cappuccino. When I looked down to pay, it read €700 instead of €7. When I asked for the bill to be corrected, a nondisabled manager quickly came to help her. 

Shortly after, I was served a cappuccino and chocolate croissant by a waiter who also had Down syndrome. When I told him I had ordered a butter croissant, the manager stepped in again, telling me that the cashier made a mistake and apologizing for not having any butter croissants left. I reassured him that it was no problem, taking my chocolate croissant back to my table outside.

Later, I reflected on my experience. While I was impressed by how many workers with disabilities the cafe employed, I wondered to what extent such cafes benefited workers with disabilities, not just in France but at home in the United States. 

At 20 percent of the nation’s population, the number of people with disabilities is large, but despite their numbers they experience rampant discrimination.

Employment and Disability in the United States

When I returned to New York, I learned that Bitty and Beau’s, a US coffee company based in the Midwest, has a similar model as Café Joyeux. Founded by parents who had two children with Down syndrome, they were inspired to open a coffee shop that would provide a workplace for people with disabilities.

At 20 percent of the nation’s population, the number of people with disabilities is large, but despite their numbers they experience rampant discrimination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 30 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives, 25 percent of Black Americans, 20 percent of White Americans, 17 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, 10 percent of Asian Americans, and 17 percent of Latinx Americans have a disability.

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, people with disabilities were largely kept out of the workforce. Today, while protections exist, people with disabilities are still often excluded. In 2022, the US Labor Department estimated that 21.3 percent of people with disabilities had employment compared to 65.4 percent of people without disabilities.

Bitty and Beau’s grew rapidly in the last seven years, opening 24 locations across 14 states and employing over 400 disabled workers. Café Joyeux has also expanded quickly. In six years, they have opened 12 coffee shops around France, two in Portugal, and one in Brussels, employing 154 workers with mental and cognitive disabilities. The call to close this employment gap around the world is urgent, but what do the openings of all these cafes mean for workers with disabilities, particularly in the United States?

Combating the Legacy of “Sheltered Workshops”

To better understand the complexities involved in terms of disability justice, I spoke with Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocate specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.

I think [these coffee companies] have started for a reason. They are not a bad thing but also not a good thing. Here’s why: they’re not a good thing because running a business employing people with disabilities almost exclusively is another form of segregation,” Bates-Harris explains, noting the many similarities to a long history of segregated workplaces called sheltered workshops.

[In] 36 states, federal law continues to permit subminimum wages for workers with disabilities.

In the 1950s and 1960s, sheltered workshops became a primary approach for people with disabilities to work in the United States after experimenting with various models, starting as early as 1840 with the Perkins School for the Blind. These workshops are now run by nonprofit organizations that exclusively employ disabled people to do menial work. By law, they are allowed to pay lower than the minimum wage. 

Workplace challenges like the ones I witnessed at Café Joyeux were used as justifications to implement an exemption in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, stating that an employer need not pay a worker with disabilities equally if they don’t do the same job as a nondisabled worker. For instance, if a worker with disabilities is deemed only half as productive as a nondisabled worker, then the nonprofit is entitled to pay half the standard wage rate.  

A 2023 US Government Accountability Office report found that there are presently 120,000 workers with disabilities nationwide earning subminimum wages, with half of them earning less than $3.50 an hour. The majority of these 120,000 workers are people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. It should be noted that 14 states have passed laws to ban this.

Nonetheless, in the other 36 states, federal law continues to permit subminimum wages for workers with disabilities, as detailed in section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 2020, the US Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to this practice, stating that it was trapping workers in “exploitative and discriminatory job programs.” In 2022, ProPublica reported earnings as low as less than $1 an hour for more than 5,000 disabled workers in sheltered workshops in Missouri. 

While businesses like Bitty and Beau’s do not make use of Section 14(c) to pay subminimum wages, the segregated nature of the disabled workers still raises red flags for advocates like Bates-Harris. Even though the cafes are not sheltered workshops, they are still often marked by a lack of pay equity and career advancement opportunities. And workers with disabilities remain largely segregated.

For example, a current Bitty and Beau’s employee on the autism spectrum who works at a cafe in Wilmington, NC, informed me that when they were hired seven years ago, it was at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Note: I also reached out to management at Bitty and Beau’s for an interview, but they failed to reply.)

The employee’s mother filled in more details, explaining, “They always share the tips, but I don’t know how they do their accounting. They sort of get paid like a waiter and the tips are used to boost their pay up to more depending on the tips. Sometimes I’ve seen them make $9.00 an hour, but other than that they haven’t raised their pay in all the seven years they’ve worked there, and they are their star employee who brings a lot of business in.”

“They bring home $250 every two weeks for 20 hours a week,” she continued. “They have done extra things for the company besides their job, but they never got paid extra for it. Maybe a gift card here and there.”

When asked if there was room to grow in the company, the employee’s mother responded: “No, not really. Unless they created another position and had the foresight to do that, but it hasn’t happened in seven years and now that they started franchising, they did away with a lot.” The manager positions, she noted, are reserved for college students recruited from local colleges who have some form of background in disability resources or special education. Workers with disabilities, she concluded, “are never going to get paid enough to live on their own.”

Employment Alone Is Not Enough

Bates-Harris acknowledges these kinds of coffee shops have some good traits. “The part that is good is that it helps people earn money,” Bates-Harris explains. Bitty and Beau’s, she adds, “pays minimum wage, but they don’t pay a competitive wage. In other shops like Starbucks, they get more than minimum. People with disabilities are among the poorest in the country. The older you get, the more likely you live in poverty.” 

Bitty and Beau’s opened their first shop in Wilmington, NC, in 2016. Their compensation imbalance began when they implemented an internship program that required disabled workers to be unpaid for six weeks until they were properly trained. When the owners were sued, they ended the program claiming they wouldn’t fathom the idea of running a sheltered workshop. 

Today, the current minimum wage in Wilmington is $7.25 an hour. The livable wage in the area for a single adult with no children is $16.44 an hour. As of 2022, people with disabilities in the state of North Carolina receive an average of $1,359 monthly from Social Security Disability Insurance. But when it comes to living expenses in Wilmington, including rent, utilities, food, and transportation, the average for one person is $2,121 monthly. 

If a person with disabilities is working part-time at minimum wage, they are earning $580 before taxes aside from their disability payments. In the best circumstances, they come up about $300 to $400 short to live on their own. In looking through Glassdoor reviews, a former Bitty and Beau’s worker from Charlotte, NC, wrote that “many employees cannot work full time shifts. Don’t get paid enough to live on.” 

“Another piece that is bad,” Harris-Bates adds, “is that these jobs offer entry-level employment without opportunity for advancement and growth. People may forever be stuck in this job or not have the chance to earn more money.” 

In short, much like sheltered workshops, disabled workers often stay in the lowest positions of these coffee companies. 

In 2020, a disability advocate reported for the New York Times that only one person with a disability had been promoted to a higher position at Bitty and Beau’s. Their management pay scale offers sufficient compensation to fully support financial independence. Promotions also help people with disabilities to develop their skills and move on to other jobs they might like more. Such practices can also help undermine the stereotype that people with disabilities can only do limited tasks.

“The model [Bitty and Beau’s] uses does not meet the definition of competitive integrated employment,” Harris-Bates concludes. Competitive integrated employment “offers the same level of benefits, salary, support and opportunities to all employees with comparable experience, skills, and education—whether or not they have disabilities.”

Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access

Beyond a paycheck, companies like Bitty and Beau’s aim to provide work options to people with disabilities to increase their access to employment. “I actually went to a Bitty and Beau’s in the downtown area of Annapolis. I was intrigued and interested,” says Courtney Gutiérrez, an inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) consultant and accessibility expert of Step Into My Office Consulting.

“I do think they are a start,” Gutiérrez says. “They are answering a call for opportunities for workers with disabilities….It gives that person an opportunity to learn and aspire to be part of a community.…Many people with disabilities struggle with lack of accessibility within jobs and the barriers when it comes to accommodations in the workplace. The work-from-home approach has actually improved the employment rate [of people with disabilities] because they can be accommodated in their own home,” Gutiérrez says.

“We need to not segregate but integrate workers with disabilities. That is how we are going to reduce [unemployment] rates,” Gutiérrez adds.

While these coffee shops can generate social awareness about the capacity of people with disabilities, there is a gap when it comes to race and ethnicity.

When I asked the employee I interviewed whether their coworkers are diverse, they said yes, both about the wide range of disabilities represented—from autism and Down syndrome to cerebral palsy—and about race. Yet people of color with disabilities are rarely included in these coffee companies’ marketing, even though, as noted above, a large percentage of people with disabilities in the United States are people of color.

Fair wages, segregation, lack of career advancement, and racial disparity only scratch the surface of issues that come up.

“There are sometimes not a lot of intersectional identities [recognized]….People of color don’t have access to these opportunities and are not recruited. We do see other prejudices happening. Overall, in diversity, equity and inclusion work, a full spectrum of disabled people isn’t always brought into the conversation. This happens when it’s a performative approach,” Gutiérrez explains. “However, the inclusion, diversity, equity, and access framework is really helping people to think about what is accessible in organizations. Bringing people with that life experience…will answer a lot of questions about race, socioeconomics, and education.” 

More Questions Than Answers

The conversations I had around fair wages, segregation, lack of career advancement, and racial disparity only scratch the surface of issues that come up with these coffee companies, leaving many more questions than answers.

On the business end, Bitty and Beau’s now operates as a franchise, which speaks to its rapid expansion. The company founders wrote for the Harvard Business Review about carefully vetting franchisees to be able to fulfill their mission of inclusion, but what about the rest of the team needed to operate a cafe? 

The owners say managers don’t need to have previous experience working with workers with disabilities, just an open mind. But when is there time to vet, prepare, and assemble the right environment for workers with disabilities to thrive? Are these workers being sacrificed for quick cafe openings to turn a profit from which they do not fully benefit? Does the mission stop at providing employment rather than supporting financially sustainable lives for people with disabilities?

The employee in Wilmington who I spoke with said the shift in practice that has come with franchising is noticeable. “Before, they used to take a lot of my ideas into account but not that much anymore….They have gotten rid of our meeting room space, and it is now a room for more merchandise to sell.”

Other questions also arise about the role of customers. With growing numbers of similar cafes opening, what is the role of a nondisabled customer at these businesses? Given the lack of integration and interaction that society in general has with people with disabilities, how must the nondisabled population be educated?

Looking back on my visit to Café Joyeux, I could see how some customers might treat it as a novelty experience rather than a legitimate place to enjoy coffee and baked goods. But others might go because they like the kind of customer service and social experience that it provides. But if both perspectives come from a place of othering, does this place increase the social isolation that people with disabilities suffer?

“The big thing,” Gutiérrez reminds me, “is not if we will be disabled but when. There needs to be a broader conversation to really create an inclusive environment.”