Why We Need to Re-Think the 'Coffee Cart' for Students With Disabilities


A Williams syndrome diagnosis afforded my daughter placement in a variety of educational settings. During her high school career, she was placed in special education for mathematics. Some activities have proved themselves very useful while other left me sometimes bewildered and sometimes enraged. Six years ago, in the ninth grade, my daughter’s special education teacher thought it would be a great idea to create a coffee shop the students ran. The idea was that students would take orders and deliver coffee to their teachers.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Maybe that’s because the “Grizzly Bean” in Texas went viral.

To me, this is free labor and promotion of a stigma that many of us parent advocates strive so hard to diffuse. This fake coffee thing is not employment. Not even close. And it is almost as bothersome to me as special education students wiping down tables in the cafeteria or picking up other people’s trash. If it’s their choice, great! Many people choose careers in these clusters, but just as many do not, and would not, if given the chance to choose. Can anyone out there explain to me why the only fields of work that seem to accept workers with disabilities have to do with food and filth? Why isn’t a high school teacher helping students create a career of their choosing? That’s the big question I have.

My concern is, if we accept this behavior, applaud it and promote it and continue to praise this lower standard, then we are undercutting an entire population of students that could easily be coached and molded into young professionals. That’s exactly where I fear we’re going when we give props to the coffee cart. We’re modeling training for an order taker — not a small business owner. When students are asked to provide services without being compensated for them, we’re de-valuing their skill set and ability level instead of growing it. Raise your hand if those are the life lessons and hands-on work-related training you’d like for your student to receive in high school? Personally, I’d rather see these students volunteer in the community, or better yet, be included in extracurricular activities with their neurotypical peers.

Inclusion, by the way, is not specific students singled out to serve teachers. Inclusion is meaningful, intentional access to contribute to society — it is being part of the whole community at large.

I was against the coffee cart back then and I’m against it now. The difference is, I’m no longer afraid to talk about why.

Getty image by SilverV


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