How 1 cafe is helping people with autism break into the workforce
By Rheana Murray / TODAY
For many people, work is taken for granted — an assumed, if not all that exciting, part of daily life, something to grumble about on Monday mornings.
But for others, it’s the dream. And for many adults with developmental disabilities, especially those who have aged out of the public education system, it’s a dream that can feel far out of reach. Many businesses don’t want to take a chance on someone with special needs — and in cases when they do, employees are often given menial tasks such as sweeping floors or cleaning bathrooms, or insufficient hours on the schedule.
Puzzles Bakery and Cafe in Schenectady, New York, is a place where more than half of the employees have some form of developmental disability. The cafe’s logo, a puzzle piece, is a symbol for autism awareness.
Sara Mae Pratt, 28, opened Puzzles in 2015, inspired by her sister Emily, who is on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
“Here in New York, at age 21, that’s when people age out of public education,” Pratt said, speaking of resources available to her sister and others. “She was nearing adulthood and we were starting to realize what kinds of opportunities were available for people with developmental disabilities.”
What she found? Not much.
In 2017, only 18.7 percent of people with a disability were employed, compared to 65.7 percent of people without a disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it’s not just about the paycheck: There’s also a sense of purpose and identity that comes with having a job, which many people with disabilities never get to experience.
“We’re talking about sort of that fundamental right to work and just be part of our communities,” said Pratt, who had no real experience in business or the food and beverage industry before she opened Puzzles.
Her employees aren’t relegated to jobs at the bottom of the ladder, as is the case in many businesses that hire people who have disabilities — they’re baking, cooking and preparing food, taking orders, serving customers and more.
Her driving mission of acceptance extends to the clientele at Puzzles.
“When I was growing up and my family would try to bring my sister maybe grocery shopping or to a restaurant, we never knew if she might have a meltdown or some behaviors out in public,” Pratt said. “And that’s something that, especially a lot of families with younger children with disabilities, they might be concerned about what people are thinking or how that might reflect in the community.
“But what I love about Puzzles is everyone can feel really at home and safe here. All of our employees are really understanding and trained. They would completely understand if somebody was vocalizing or maybe rocking back and forth or having a meltdown in a way that might be sort of socially inappropriate elsewhere. It’s OK here.”
If you live in the Schenectady, New York area please stop by for a visit to support this beautiful business and its employees.
Puzzles Bakery & Cafe
515 State Street
Schenectady, NY 12305
Learn More: Puzzles Bakery & Cafe