It’s only been open a few weeks, but already Puzzles Bakery & Cafe feels like a second home to employees and customers alike.
Not that the new Schenectady cafe is anymore cozy than any other downtown Schenectady spot. The people aren’t any more friendly or casual than you might find in any other retail setting.
But it’s a place where parents can celebrate a child’s birthday without worrying about stares or judgment if their autistic child has an outburst in public. It’s a breakfast, lunch and dinner spot where customers can see something they’re unlikely to see in many places: an integrated business that includes employees with developmental disabilities manning the cash register, stocking the shelves, serving them food and sweeping the floors.
“What we’re doing here at Puzzles is serving as an example for other businesses to show them that some of these guys are the best employees you could ever ask for,” said owner Sara Mae Hickey, whose younger sister has autism. “They come to work on time. They’re happy to do what is asked of them. Just because they have special needs doesn’t mean they’re any different than anyone else. And in fact, they’re sometimes much more capable and willing to do what needs to be done, and are just so happy to be here.”
Hickey, a 24-year-old Skidmore College graduate, has been working since the summer of 2013 to open the cafe at 515 State St., a little spot that serves soups, salads, hot and cold sandwiches, and fresh-baked goods using locally sourced ingredients. Just up the road from Proctors, the more-than-a-century-old building got a gut rehab that included new electrical, plumbing, heating, insulation, framing and walls.
She’s been documenting the progress on Facebook for more than a year, building anticipation among a community that’s encouraged by her mission of providing an integrated workplace where all are welcome. On March 12, she kicked off a three-day soft opening for family and friends and had upward of 500 visitors. On Thursday — World Autism Awareness Day — the cafe had its grand-opening celebration with local officials, community members and friends.
She received 400 job applications for just 20 open spots. How many of those applicants had disabilities? She doesn’t know because she doesn’t ask. But the tidal wave of applications that poured in after her mission became public underscores a great need in many communities nationwide: equal employment opportunity.
“A lot of people are scared to let employers know that they have a disability because there’s a very good chance that employers hear ‘disability’ and just throw the application in the garbage,” Hickey said.
The percentage of working-age people with disabilities of some kind in the U.S. workforce is one-third that of persons without disabilities, according to the federal government. And those who are employed face significant gaps in pay and compensation compared to their non-disabled colleagues.
Patrick Meehan applied for dozens of retail jobs fresh out of high school. The Clifton Park man has Asperger syndrome and willingly informed potential employers of that on his job applications.
“Every single application was ignored,” he said. “Every single time I never got a call back. The first time I decided to submit an application without mentioning my disability, almost instantly I got a call back.”
The call was from Outback Steakhouse in Clifton Park. He’s worked there five years now part time, and didn’t tell anyone about his disability until he had been there for at least two years.
He was thrilled to learn last year that a place like Puzzles was looking for candidates just like him, so he submitted his name and was one of 20 out of hundreds of applicants to land a part-time gig.
“It’s harder to get a job when an employer sees you have a mental disability — without a shadow of a doubt,” Meehan said. “The moment you say ‘disability’ you are judged. I feel like people judge you before you can even show what you can do. Ever since I’ve been at Puzzles, I feel like I don’t have to apologize for who I am. This is who I am. And everyone else here had a fair shot and a truly equal opportunity. It’s a very liberating feeling.”
A good chunk of visitors to the cafe are developmentally disabled, or friends and family members of someone with a disability, Hickey said.
Only a week or so earlier, a mom brought her 8-year-old autistic son in for his birthday. None of the employees knew about it ahead of time, but noticed the boy had a “Frozen” book in his hands and decided to play the hit song “Let it go” from the Disney movie over the cafe’s speakers.
“He was profoundly disabled, like rocking and making vocalizations,” Hickey recalled. “As soon as that opening piano part came on he perked right up with a big smile on his face. The kid was pretty nonverbal, but you could just see that he was just so happy and everyone was so happy to have him here.”
His mom, close to tears, told Hickey that she could rarely bring her family out into public for any length of time because of people’s reactions anytime he has a meltdown.
“She said it was the best birthday they’d ever had for him — that it was so nice to know they weren’t going to be judged and that instead they actually fit in,” Hickey said.
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