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Coffee shop aims to change how people with special needs are employed

With hope and hard work, a mom and speech pathologist teamed up to open a coffee shop run by adults with disabilities.
/ Source: TODAY

Unemployment rates for adults with special needs are high, but one coffee shop aims to change that.

Pam Donovan is a mom whose son, Ethan Donovan, has been living with special needs his whole life. As Ethan, who has autism and is non-verbal, prepared to join the workforce, Donovan and Ethan's longtime speech pathologist Marcia Gurian had an idea that would help him succeed. On Nov. 16, they opened Ethan and the Bean, a non-profit coffee shop that employs and educates adults like Ethan in Little Falls, New Jersey.

Employees with special needs make minimum wage and above at Ethan and the Bean and learn a range of skills, from making drinks to working the register.TODAY

"Our biggest reason definitely for starting Ethan and the Bean is my son," Donovan told TODAY. "What was he going to do when he graduates high school? Even though there are jobs, they're so few and far between. Unemployment right now for people with special needs is somewhere between 80 and 85%.

"Our mission is to employ individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and change the mindset of society one cup of coffee at a time."

We'll drink to that.

Gurian works with Ethan to communicate his wants and needs using an iPad, so he can express how he feels about various jobs at work like grinding beans (one of his favorite activities) and even greet customers using a voice on the iPad.

"There is no reason today why an employer can't hire these people because they are all able to communicate," Gurian told TODAY.

Ethan Donovan stands in the coffee shop started by his mom and longtime speech pathologist, Ethan and the Bean.TODAY

At Ethan and the Bean, all the employees make minimum wage and above, which Gurian said is not typical for those with special needs who often receive just tips, below minimum wage or volunteer for experience. At this cozy cafe, they operate the registers, craft the drinks and interact with customers daily.

Donovan and Gurian also recruited Ph.D. students from nearby Caldwell University to further the training of special needs and non-special needs staff members. They hope this will encourage more employees and employers to work confidently with individuals of all ranges of abilities.

"They'll now have a bank account and maybe they'll be able to get their own apartment. Everybody deserves to have a purpose, and I think Ethan and the Bean has created a purpose," said Gurian.

The employees agree.

"I really enjoy working as a barista because I like to make new friends there," Ethan and the Bean staffer Michael Candido told TODAY. "My most favorite part is doing the register and talking to the customer."

"It's just so incredible, finally to be working for something major. I feel like this is going to be my big break," employee Thomas Krakoviak told TODAY. "It can show that even with a disability, some people can have full potential doing such very excellent service!"

And the service at Ethan and the Bean is, indeed, excellent.