Disability Employment Gap Narrows as Coffee Chain Offers Unique Model

Recent data suggests a slight improvement in employment rates for disabled Americans. However, despite these positive strides, there remains a vast disparity in the workforce. Amy and Ben Wright, founders of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, stand at the forefront of a movement challenging this status quo, proving the potential of a business model centered on hiring individuals with disabilities. Their journey offers essential insights for small business owners nationwide.

While current national labor statistics show that only one out of five Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) secure jobs, Bitty & Beau’s Coffee provides a shimmer of hope. The Wrights are not merely business pioneers; they’re parents to two children with Down syndrome and staunch advocates for disability employment. Their thriving coffee chain now spans 19 stores with over 400 employees, the majority being individuals with disabilities.

During a conversation with CNBC’s Sharon Epperson at the Small Business Playbook virtual summit, Ben Wright expressed his belief that the business world has an obligation toward disabled individuals. “What I saw was that when people spent time with our kids, Bitty and Beau, who have Down syndrome, it changed them. They saw them as real people, not just oh, there’s a person with a disability,” he stated.

He emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in societal and business attitudes towards the disabled, urging businesses to harness the untapped potential of this often-overlooked labor force. Not only is there a moral imperative, but there are also tangible benefits, including potential state and federal tax incentives. Beyond these financial perks, Ben highlighted the unforeseen advantages: “Companies will find that there’s a whole new level of innovation and problem-solving and creativity that will start to creep into a business when they start to have people with I/DD in their four walls.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from 2022 paints a picture of gradual improvement. Labor force participation for disabled workers reached 23.1%, and the employment-population ratio hit 21.3% – historic highs since the BLS started its records in 2008. Despite these achievements, disabled unemployment rates (7.6%) remain double those of non-disabled individuals.

The Wrights’ journey began in 2016 with their inaugural Bitty and Beau’s Coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. Since then, the franchise has expanded into 11 states. Their commitment to disability employment and inclusivity provides a blueprint for other small business owners.

Amy Wright imparted simple yet profound advice during the CNBC small business event: Start discussing disability employment within your company. The act of declaring “this matters to us” can profoundly impact company culture. One in five Americans has a disability. Therefore, recognizing the importance of disability employment signals a company’s values and taps into an extensive network of potential workers connected to current employees.

Ben emphasized the necessity of identifying appropriate roles for workers with disabilities and innovating to ensure their success. He shared that finding the perfect fit might require trial and error, but persistence pays off. And while the majority of Bitty & Beau’s staff have disabilities, non-disabled employees play a pivotal role in supporting their colleagues, creating a balanced ecosystem.

Amy also stressed the significance of language in job postings. Rather than an afterthought, accommodations for disabled workers should be highlighted prominently, signaling a company’s commitment to inclusivity.

As small businesses grapple with hiring challenges, the story of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee emerges as a compelling case study. By prioritizing disability employment, businesses can tap into a vast, underutilized talent pool and foster a more inclusive and innovative work environment.

Image: Bittyandbeauscoffee

Joshua Sophy Joshua Sophy is the Editor for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 16 years. A professional journalist with 20 years of experience in traditional media and online media, he attended Waynesburg University and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has held roles of reporter, editor and publisher, having founded his own local newspaper, the Pottsville Free Press.