The café that serves the needs of the disabled as well as a great cup of coffee

Ridhwan Ahmed, Intern, Ocean View. Pic: Sonal Nain

For Disability History Month, Eastlondonlines visited the Ocean View Café in Tower Hamlets, a social enterprise venture providing employment and training opportunities for those with learning disabilities. Sonal Nain reports.

Just a few months ago, Ridhwan Ahmad, 21, was worried that he would never be able to secure a job due to his learning disability. However now, after gaining real-world experience and developing essential skills in the hospitality industry, he believes he could get his dream job at Costa Coffee or the new Premier Inn in Tower Hamlets.

He can have more confidence in his future because of his time spent at the Ocean View Cafe in Tower Hamlets. The cafe, a social enterprise venture prepares people with learning disabilities for the workforce by teaching them skills like customer service, teamwork, and barista techniques. It has allowed Ahmad to not only learn the tricks of the trade, but also instilled in him a belief that he could pursue his dream to work with some of the biggest brands in the business.

Opened in 2015, the Ocean View Cafe take its name from the Ocean Estate which the café overlooks and is part of the Tower Project, a community based voluntary sector organisation and award-winning service provider for children and adults with learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, and other health-related issues.

Graham Smithers, 51, Head of Services at Tower Project, told Eastlondonlines: “We train these people in hospitality and JET skills in the form of internships and apprenticeships for nine months. It is important to get people in work environments where they are working with customers, coffee machines and the job market. We also have collaborated with Climpson’s for broader training into coffee as a product to provide people training here with an edge in the market.”

The Ocean View Café is typically operated by a team of six staff — four café workers with learning disabilities and two job coaches.  As most café workers at Ocean View are part time, the café can provide opportunities for up to 20 people with each week, with most workers being employed at the café for six to nine months before progressing into mainstream work.

Graham Smithers, Tower Projects. Pic: Sonal Nain

The café doesn’t hire people on a permanent basis in order to up-skill the greatest number of people providing them with a steppingstone to move onto other jobs.

Smithers, told ELL: “The Tower Project was started 30 years ago by the parents of children with disabilities and autism as they were not happy with institutional services offered to them by the local authority at that time. The Tower project started children’s services and inclusive activities in the borough, so they don’t have to go outside.”​

Smithers added: “Tower Project wanted disabled children to have summer experience as other children would have, and that became very popular over the years and eventually branched out to lots of different services like the support of living.”

Tower Project’s JET services began nearly 15 years ago, led by local people to help students with learning disabilities gain employment training and work experience. These young people wanted to work and needed the right support which they lacked from mainstream support services.

Smithers told ELL: “The JET service started as a small service operated from a tiny room with two to three members of staff and a handful of clients. In the last two to three years it has gained popularity and we now have a hub for learning disabilities and employment and training and an award-winning team of advisors and job coaches.”

Nancy Neal, job coach at Ocean View Café. Pic: Sonal Nain

Nancy Neal, a 51-year-old job coach and training services provider at the café, said: “I feel very content at the end of the day when you see these people getting employment through the life skills we have provided them. The clients/interns are really motivated to work and do it really well.”  

Neal has been working for four years at the café and said it is very rewarding work: “I really enjoy being in the community and giving back to it. The café offers coffee at affordable prices with the same quality as more established chains.”

Smithers added: “In terms of the success of our work, just before the pandemic, Tower Hamlets achieved its highest level of record of employment for people with a learning disability — the level was 50 per cent higher than the Greater London authority. Moreover, 70 per cent of the people trained over here have gone to bigger places like a Michelin Star restaurant, the Modrian Hotel in Shoreditch, Cinema cafes and Costa Coffee.”

Smithers said that the rise in the cost of living should not affect the cafe: “We’re not here to make profits or do business, it’s a social enterprise. The benefits attached to it are that these young people are able to find employment. This is at the core of who we are as a community and what we do.”

The UK observes the Disability History month from November 16 to December 16. 

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