Mentally disabled thrive if given a chance

The baristas, cashiers and bakers at Hangzhou's Wisdom Tree Cafe are mentally impaired. About 30,000 people in the city suffer some level of intellectual impairment. 

To get a cup of coffee at Hangzhou’s Wisdom Tree Cafe, customers need to wait much longer than in usual coffee houses, but nobody minds because it’s all for a good cause. The baristas, cashiers and bakers are mentally impaired.

The staff members are associated with the Hangzhou Yanglingzi School, which teaches the mentally disabled skills that help them find jobs and join the mainstream of society. At the cafe, the school’s teachers, students’ parents and volunteers also pitch in to keep the business running smoothly.

The cafe was started by the school three years ago.

“The mentally impaired need to meet and communicate with people instead of just staying shut in at home,” said Zhu Jiawei, manager of the cafe and a teacher at the school.

According to local federation for the disabled in Hangzhou, about 30,000 people in the city suffer some level of intellectual impairment. The school and charity organizations, while helpful, reach out to only a small portion of them.

A Shanghai Daily journalist ordered a glass of milk tea at the Wisdom Tree Cafe. A worker named Miao Miao made it under the supervision of a parent. Slowly but conscientiously, she added water and ice cubes to a glass, stirred and poured in milk. Then she bowed and said, “Teacher, your tea is ready.”

They call all customers “teacher,” both as a sign of respect and as a way of not getting confused about how to address people correctly.


Xu Wenwen

Miao Miao makes milk tea at the Wisdom Tree Cafe, where the baristas, cashiers and bakers are mentally impaired.

The tea and cakes served at the cafe are no different from the fare of most coffee houses, but the food is somewhat cheaper. Tiramisu, for example, costs 10 yuan (US$1.50). Zhu said all the recipes are provided by chefs in Hangzhou and the students “follow every step strictly.”

Fei Ma, the mother of Fei Fei, a baker at the cafe, said if a recipe calls for 50 grams of sugar, her son won’t add 49 or 51 grams. He will add precisely 50 grams. Fei Fei graduated from the baking class at Yanglingzi School four years ago.

The school also provides courses in car washing, housecleaning and handicrafts. Students are assigned to courses based on their ability and their interests.

When Fei Fei left school at 18, he had nowhere to go and stayed home for more than a year.

“Day by day, he forgot what he had learned at school, and became depressed,” said his mother. “Near our apartment, there’s a logistics company, and I saw him looking out the window for hours at a time, watching how workers carried and moved boxes. I knew he, too, wanted a job.”

When Wisdom Tree Cafe opened and hired Fei Fei, a smile returned to his face. He now works five or six hours a day and makes several varieties of cakes. He likes to try new recipes and present them to customers.

Teacher Zhu said the government provides allowances to the mentally disabled who don’t work. Those who do find work usually receive the minimum wage, which is only slight higher than the government stipend.

“But working keeps them learning and gives them self-esteem,” said Zhu.

The school now operates three cafes and a small convenience store in the city, which employ students aged 16 to 18.

Still, the small business enterprises aren’t enough to provide work for the 20 or so students who graduated from Yanglingzi every year. Some fast-food outlets, like Starbucks and KFC recruit a few students from the school each year.

“But that leaves at least two-thirds of grads cannot find a job,” said Zhu. “The school’s businesses are like out-of-school classrooms or internships. To make them better, we need much more support from government and big companies.”

In Hangzhou, there are individuals and organizations that provide job-related opportunities and social activities for the mentally disabled.

One of them is Xin Ying Ai Xin Helping Center for the Disabled, set up by a retired worker named Hu Fengdi. The center offers free dance lessons and craftwork class for children suffering from autism, Down’s syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Hu uses her own savings to finance the activities, with some help from donations. But it’s hard to make ends meet, much less expand.

“For years, we have been desperately in need of a permanent site for classes, but we haven’t yet got one,” said Hu.

Elsewhere, the Wan Wan Care Center founded by Xu Qin, whose 29-year-old son has a severe mental disability, runs a car wash and a small convenience store to provide jobs for mentally disabled people.

Despite its good intentions, the business is having trouble breaking even, though Xu was a successful entrepreneur for years.

“I am getting on in years now,” she said, “and I hope we can make the business sustainable before I have to retire.”


Special Reports
Top