Steps with Theera is a brave social enterprise that challenges society’s views on working with a disability.
By Ashima Sethi
The subject of disabilities is an entrenched taboo in our Thai Indian society because of the way we’ve been raised to understand the word capable. For many of us, being capable translates to having the ability to study in top schools or secure employment in the most competitive high-paying jobs. But by adhering to these ideologies, we have failed to realise that embracing individual differences can be much more rewarding than trying to fit people into a cookie cutter mould of top grades, financial success and flawless social etiquette. This might be a realistic goal for some, but for others, excelling in a system that hasn’t been designed to meet their needs is near impossible.
Hence we all need to accept that learning disabilities are not an issue of intelligence or motivation. Instead, they affect how individuals process information, which in turn, impacts how they view and understand the world. People with disabilities are more than capable, but in order to become their best selves, they need to study and work in an environment that accepts their unique set of challenges. This is where the two years old Steps with Theera comes in.
Nestled within a vibrant café on Ekkamai Soi 10, the centre provides vocational training for people with special needs, while also acting as a positive support system for their future growth. The co-owners have also opened up two more coffee shops, Theera 42 and Steps with Theera at St. Andrews 71, where young adults can gain more working experience.
Masala sits down with co-founder Max Simpson for an open discussion about fighting stigma, one coffee cup at a time.
What motivated you to establish Steps with Theera?
While I was working as deputy head at an international special needs school, I noticed that many of the older students weren’t getting the opportunity to move on after they graduated. Soon I began taking smaller groups of them to a nearby coffee shop called Theera for work, since the owner has an autistic son and she was very open-minded about the idea. Almost straight away, we saw positive outcomes that came with putting young adults in a working environment, and so we decided to pursue the idea further by setting up Steps with Theera.
What do you hope to achieve with the centre?
The mission is to provide vocational training to people who have learning challenges, but also to change the perceptions of disability in the Thai community. It is often assumed that someone with a disability can’t do anything, so by coming here and seeing them work, it should change the way people think. We also want our trainees to have a chance to be part of a community, connect with new people and gain transferable skills.
What does the enrolment process entail?
Our programmes are for ages 14 and up, and we’re happy to have new trainees join us all year round.
What kind of training is offered?
We follow UK accredited curriculums, but we also write some of our own to ensure that they are sensitive to Thai culture and lifestyle. Training is focused around life skills, independence and employability. It covers a huge range of levels so it’s accessible for everyone.
What kind of subjects or activities does the programme cover?
We cover hospitality and catering with our three coffee shops. We’re also launching a computer coding programme because there are a lot of available jobs in the industry, and it’s less front of house, meaning that there is less discrimination towards special needs personnel working in an office compared to a hotel. We also have office and administration programmes, so we teach our trainees how to complete daily workplace tasks.
What happens after they complete the course?
They will either gain paid employment at one of our branches, or work with one of our eight partner companies that have agreed to be inclusive in their recruitment. Of course the transition doesn’t happen overnight. Many will start working half a day, before going into full-time work.
In the pursuit of establishing Steps with Theera, has there been any milestone moments that you are particularly proud of?
So many! We began the company without a certainty of whether or not it would survive. We always believed in it, and we knew it was what the community needed, however there was still a big risk, because running a social enterprise means that all aspects of what we do has to make money. And so it makes us very proud to have reached two years.
Is Steps with Theera the only centre of its kind in the country?
It’s the only accredited vocational training centre that is running bilingually and connected to a functioning business. The first floor is our café, while the next two are our training centre.
What do you aspire to achieve in the future?
We plan to open a training centre in Phuket soon. We’re also extending our work with Special Olympics Thailand to support the government’s special needs schools by helping them with gaining resources, planning the curriculum and executing the training. This helps ensure that the students can transition into working life more smoothly. Currently, unemployment for people with disabilities is approximately 70 percent worldwide, and there’s no easy solution to the problem, so we’re going to continue advocating for it.
How do you hope to break the taboo that surrounds people with disabilities?
In many communities, there is this shame culture around the subject, and so we hope that people can form a new understanding by visiting our cafés. We want families to understand that their child doesn’t need to stay home or require a nanny to take care of them forever, because they can actually lead dignified lives and be independent. I know it’s hard for some families to accept, but we hope this article encourages people to pop in for a coffee and really see what the place is about.
Meet two bright Thai Indians, Akhil Dayaram (19) and Rajat Bhusry (25), who are currently in the process of transitioning from the Steps with Theera programme into full-time jobs.
How long have you been at Steps with Theera?
A: About a year now.
R: Six months.
What are you currently pursuing?
A: Hospitality management
R: Customer service
What are some skills you have gained during your training?
A: I’ve learnt how to work behind a bar making coffee, cooking and baking. I’ve also learnt how to serve people and multitask, since the café gets very busy at times.
R: I’ve learnt many things, especially how to take orders, deal with money and use the cash register. I’ve also learnt how to make drinks and cook.
Where are you currently working?
A: I work two days a week at Steps with Theera at St. Andrews 71 where I help prepare food, particularly sandwiches. I can also make all the different types of coffees, but I haven’t learned latte art as yet!
R: Steps with Theera at St. Andrews 71 and Theera 42. I make drinks and take orders, which I then put through the digital POS system. I also do part-time work with catering companies as a server.
Do you enjoy your programme?
A: I do but sometimes it’s challenging. When the café gets busy, it is tricky to remember all the orders, especially when the bills come out at different times.
R: I do enjoy it, particularly the community days where we get to plan a trip and head out together. We usually go to a games café nearby to play FIFA or shop for ingredients, which we then use to cook.
What do you love most about studying at Steps with Theera and how is it different from your previous schools?
A: My previous school involved a lot of learning from textbooks, but here we get to take part in different activities so learning stays interesting.
R: My former schools gave me a headache. I like it here because we get to try a lot of different things like working on the computer and creating art.
A: We also have a three-day residential camp with team building activities and sports, where we have to take care of ourselves while we’re away from home.
R: We’ve also had art galleries here, where we get to serve and talk to different people.
Where do you hope to work in the future?
A: I would like to open my own restaurant.
R: Next month, I start work at a board game café near National Stadium called More than a Game Café. I’ve always wanted to own a toy store, so it’s a step closer to my dream.
Steps with Theera
29/8 Charoen Mit, Ekkamai Soi 10,
Sukhumvit 63, Klongtan Nua
Open daily: 9am to 6pm
Tel: 02 381 6590