The festive season of love, lights, and togetherness is here! This Diwali, after an emotionally draining 2020, we at Neoculturation decided to shed some light on a homegrown initiative that has been successful in spreading the universal idea of community and inclusivity. This is the story of Cafe Arpan which employs the specially-abled people as members of its staff.
We interviewed the team of Cafe Arpan, a restaurant based in Mumbai. It is serviced by a team of 13 specially-abled adults, supported by a manager and kitchen assistant, Cafe Arpan radiates warmth and comfort with its quirky colors and cozy ambiance. It is Mumbai’s first cafe that solely employs adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and gives them opportunities to be a part of the ‘mainstream’ job market.
What was the inspiration behind starting the restaurant?
From being a Dabba service in 2015 to a cafe; Cafe Arpan launched in August 2018. The idea and inspiration behind it was the Puzzle Cafe in Manilla, Philippines: A cafe started by a family with six children, out of which one child was a person with autism. They started the business to allow the child to work. It was the driving force that led to the conceptualization of Cafe Arpan.
Similarly, Aarti, the daughter of Dr. Sushma Nagarkar (the founder of Yash Charitable Trust), is a person diagnosed with autism and you can find her work here!
Being the medium that allows a specially-abled workforce to earn a livelihood and get the opportunity to enhance their quality of life, Cafe Arpan’s sole mission is to allow people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have a workspace and community where they can work with dignity and respect.
What are the challenges that you face? Do you have some set rules?
A question asked quite often, Ashaita was happy to share that they faced very few internal operational challenges while setting up the cafe. The team members were thoroughly trained and they embraced their job roles whether be it the kitchen staff or customer service. All of them took full ownership of who they are and what they represent at Cafe Arpan; working proudly, and completing the assigned tasks. Uniformity and routine works well in their favor as most of their team members are diligent and comfortable with routine tasks.
On a day-to-day basis, the problems they face are that the hospitality industry is a very demanding, competitive industry with established brands that are their sole competitors.
Cafe Arpan wanted to establish themselves for the work they do and the quality of service; not wanting customers coming to visit them out of charity and pity. They want people to come and see how well they work, setting an example to show others what is achievable and possible, trying to inspire other restauranteers to start a business model like theirs, just like how they were inspired.
How has been the journey this far and what’s to come for Cafe Arpan?
Ever since the beginning, they received an overwhelming response from not just supporters and donors but from the community at large. Although the concept of a restaurant/cafe run by a team of specially-abled adults is common abroad; here, in Mumbai, they were the first to establish it, and thus they received a constant flow of media attention in the first few months. “Everyone who walks into the cafe arpan comes with an open mind and leaves with a full heart and a full tummy!”
Today they’re working at full capacity and nothing makes them happier. Setting an example and wanting to start a beautiful revolution, they hope to inspire people to start more of such ventures in Mumbai.
What has the audience response been like? Was it tough to capture the market?
“Overwhelmingly positive” is the word Ashaita chooses to define the audience’s response.
Cafe Arpan is well established and well recognized online, with positive reviews and a strong customer base. The curiosity of understanding the workings of a cafe run by a team of specially-abled adults is what initially drove the customers to come to visit them. Overall, word of mouth had suited them well. Though not very expansive, their social media has done a good job of drawing in people. A lot of people out there want to do good work and support charitable causes and Cafe Arpan provided them with the opportunity to do both.
The cafe also helped the team members to interact with their customers and gave them the opportunity to experience this human connect which they, unfortunately, don’t experience most of the time. Most of these individuals are marginalized in the disability sector.
For a lot of families, they don’t know what to do and so they enroll in sheltered workshops that are very exclusionary in nature whereas everything they do at YCT and Cafe Arpan is very inclusion based. They try to avoid isolation and keep the connection alive. Even during the pandemic, they tried to continue internal therapy sessions and recreational activities online.
There is a prejudice that differently-abled people face on a daily basis. How can we work towards a much more inclusive space for everyone in society?
For Ashaita, her experience with the disability sector has been life-long through the close bond she shares with Aarti. Autism was “normal” for Ashaita as she grew up around people diagnosed with it. The lack of awareness and lack of knowledge about intellectual and developmental disabilities leads to a lot of prejudice which can be avoided.
An idea she believes would help this predicament is to abandon the idea of “special schools” and have children learn, study, and grow up side by side regardless of their abilities and disabilities. Of course, there should be methods of teaching individuals that require extra help, one on one classes, mentoring, and therapy, but other than that, to encourage young people to meet and be around different communities of people, regardless of their economic background or their mental acumen. The exposure to diversity and inclusivity, would in turn enhance the unity and compassion within communities. “Why to focus on disabilities when their abilities outshine?” says Ashaita, commenting on how well-skilled and truly humane her team members are. Over time, many of them have managed to surprise her with their abilities and their extent of capabilities. “All they need is to support patience and understanding. Everyone is and should be treated as equals.”
“A populated and diverse country like India will only flourish with acceptance, empowerment, and inclusion. The three pillars that will drive the disability sector ahead towards a much more equal standing.”
Recently, the disability sector is drawing a lot of attention. Nevertheless, in most cases, it is more focused on disabilities that are better understood such as physical impairments. The language used to refer to someone with autism is still derogatory and backward. It is very important to educate people about these topics. With developmental disabilities, many people are very supportive and helpful but are more focused on early intervention and working with children which is a very noble cause but we need more organizations like cafe Arpan that focus on giving adults with such disabilities a chance at an independent life. Many families that don’t have sufficient funds to support an individual like that could call it a burden on the family, which is a very sad state of affair to be in. A person does not choose to be autistic, there’s still a lot of research going on. Cafe Arpan will always work as a therapeutic space for everyone, for people who work there and for people who come there. Having access and being able to support businesses run by a differently-abled workforce, will be a wonderful start towards a more inclusive future.
A message from YCT: We believe that our team members and others like them deserve every opportunity afforded to the rest of us. To continue our work, we seek financial support and professional expertise to guide us on our journey. Our short-term goals are two-fold: a) to build a corpus of sufficient funds to sustain our existing programs and b) work towards opening up a second cafe in another part of the city. Our long-term goal is to have our own multi-purpose space that includes a café, a cultural center, a counseling center, and a retail outlet with some back-office spaces. This will in turn let us explore livelihood options outside the hospitality industry. A community-based multi-purpose center will lend itself to many more opportunities for individuals with a diverse set of strengths. If you would like to know more about our individual programs, please do get in touch. We would also like to invite you to come and visit us in Juhu where you can experience our work and get a better understanding of the requirements we have to sustain in the future.