MITTI: An Overwhelming Journey of Differently Abled and How a Simple Job Changed Their Lives

What can a simple cafe do? Well, it can change lives. And this is exactly what MITTI Cafe has done. A cafe managed and run exclusively by differently-abled people, MITTI has brought not just the positive behavioural change in its employees but has also led to an actual physical change. Read more about the amazing cafe and its heartwarming journey!

Keerti, a 20-year-old girl from Hubli was born with a physical deformity that affected her mobility. Coming from an extremely underprivileged background, Keerti could not afford a wheelchair and would walk on her fours.

A grade eight drop out, Keerti also had a speech impairment and could not continue her education due to financial and physical constraints. After dropping out of the school, she spent seven years looking for a job. Many failed interviews and lost opportunities later, Keerti went to a newly opened cafe to apply for a job.

Accompanied by her mother, who is also physically disabled, an under-confident Keerti entered the cafe with an assumption that she will get rejected again. But she didn’t. Keerti got the job and became the first employee of the newly opened cafe called MITTI.

On her first day of her job, Keerti dropped the first cup of the tea she picked to serve the customer, she picked up another cup and dropped it again and this happened thrice. She didn’t give up and finally served the tea to the customer. Six months after this incident, Keerti has become the employee of the month twice, she manages four more employees under her and is a customers’ favourite.

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Keerti, at MITTI Cafe, Hubli

Not just this, Keerti who once struggled to move her one hand properly, now counts money with that hand and has seen an immense positive physical transformation in her body. And all she needed was a job to get here. She no more has to commute through her fours now since she has bought a wheelchair. Her mother too has joined MITTI and works with her.

Keerti is just one example of the amazing impact MITTI Cafe has brought in the lives of people with physical and learning disabilities.

Redefining mainstream spaces

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Started in June 2017 by 25-year-old Alina Alam, MITTI is a cafe managed and run exclusively by differently-abled people. Designed to provide employment opportunities to people with disability, the cafe aims to create awareness for the cause and promote a system of self-sustenance.

“While working in the development sector for past couple of years, I realised that livelihood is something that can make or break anything. People with disability have certain strengths, which need to be used in the right direction,” says Alina.

The cafe serves hot and cold beverages along with south Indian, north Indian and Chinese cuisines. The employees undergo a paid internship for three months before they are given a permanent job role.

MITTI has menus in braille and posters through which one may pick up sign language for greetings and basic communication to interact and gel with the employees who have hearing/speech impairment. In addition, a part of MITTI Cafe’s profits is used for social work.

 The cafe is currently operational at two locations in Karnataka: BVB College, Hubli and Kittel College, Dharwad.

Deshpande Foundation provided incubation support and space in BVB Hubli to MITTI to kickstart its journey and they haven’t looked back since then. DF, through its program Samvidha also supported the team to conceptualise MITTI and helped in bringing orders. Thanks to Samvidha’s early support, MITTI team has been able to create a clear vision and a healthy ecosystem. Samvidha has been nurturing the growth of many next-generation social impact ideators like MITTI by bridging the gap in access to funds, mentorship and market access to accelerate the intended impact.

MITTI Cafe currently has 18 employees and each cafe can serve up to 450 people per day.

“Through these cafes, we want to redefine the mainstream space. We don’t want these cafes to be some alternate spaces run by people with disabilities. We want them to be like any other cafe where people go and enjoy a cup of coffee,” says Alina.

Due to lack of formal education, there is a high rate of illiteracy among the differently abled community. This is why they struggle to get decent jobs. In MITTI cafes formal education is not a mandatory criterion for the work here is skill-based.

Converting disability into an ability

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MITTI has hit just the right chord by assigning jobs to its employees according to their disability and skills. For a person with down syndrome, precision is important. They clean their surroundings and cutlery around them very well. This is why Shubha, a girl with down syndrome was assigned the task of cleaning and nobody does it better than her.

Fifty-five-year-old Sharief had to get his voice box removed due to throat cancer. He lost his ability to speak and also his job. Being a sole bread earner of a family of seven, Sharief had been struggling to get a job. He joined MITTI and post-training was assigned the role of the cafe manager due to prior marketing experience and excellent human management skills.

Similarly, Gangadhar and Praveen are visually impaired.  They cannot cut vegetables, take care of the cutlery and do other cooking related tasks, which is why they are assigned the role of customer interaction.

An employee with cerebral palsy is assigned the task of maintaining the accounts, while another employee with asperges takes care of keeping everything at the right place.

Each member’s role is assigned in a way that it compliments the other in the café. Enable India has helped MITTI to assign these roles.

The overwhelming impact

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“It is astonishing to see the kind of impact a simple job can bring in the life of people with disabilities. Not just behavioural change, I have seen the actual physical transformation in the people who work with us,” says Alina.

Sabiha is yet another employee of MITTI. A large part of Sabiha’s body was paralysed since birth and she could not move her hands. She was assigned the role of customer interaction and she has excelled in her job role. “If someone comes for Rs 7 tea, they go with Rs 60 combo after talking to me,” exclaims Sabiha.

A victim of domestic violence, she lost all confidence in herself. Working in MITTI Cafe has given her that missing smile on her face.

One day when Sabiha fell ill and still hesitated in taking a leave, Alina asked her to take rest and not to worry about her loss of pay. “I told her that don’t worry I won’t cut your salary. Please take rest for a week,” recalls Alina. Sabiha took a deep breath and asked: “Do you think I come here for money? I come here because it makes me feel ‘normal’.”

This job has given Sabiha not just acceptance but also a ray of hope towards a better future.

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Another MITTI employee, Rajshekhar, has seen a complete transformation. Alina found him wandering the streets, wearing torn and filthy clothes. Alina approached him and asked him to take her to his mother. They reached Rajshekhar’s tiny home and Alina asked his mother to come at MITTI Cafe with Rajshekhar.

“I couldn’t speak Kannada and didn’t know whether they understood what I said. But to my surprise, Rajshekhar and his mother came to MITTI the next day and he smiled at me,” recalls Alina.

Alina hired Rajshekhar at the cafe same day. Rajshekhar’s excitement was clearly visible as he joined his first job ever. He faced severe anger issue. He would throw things around often and would not calm down. As he regularly started coming to the cafe and spoke to Alina, his condition gradually started improving. Today, he wears a wide smile on his face and exudes a lot of positive energy.

MITTI has also taken people with disabilities who also struggled with drug addiction. “And I have seen people getting rid of their addiction here. The kind of impact MITTI has created is overwhelming,” says Alina.

The road ahead

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Just a few months after its inception, MITTI has shown immense growth and impact. Alina aims to have over 100 MITTI Cafes in the next five years and 60 in the next three years. The focus is on impacting over 500 persons with disability across India by partnering with corporate houses, healthcare and educational institutions.

“Our aim is to create model cafés which evoke awareness of the culture of inclusion and equal opportunities in employment to be emulated by others in the food space,” she says.

MITTI cafe is all set to open six new branches in Bangalore in 2018. These cafes will be funded by Social Venture Partners. MITTI Cafe is looking to open more cafes in institutions that have ecosystem support and appreciation for providing jobs to people with disability.

How can you help?

You can support these cafes by just going there and interacting with the staff. New centres will soon be opening up at different locations and spreading the word about them would be a great way to push the envelope further.

“It’d be great if people come and ask us to open these cafes in their cities. But there has to be the right culture in place. We have created a healthy environment in this space and we would like to reflect that in all the other MITTI Cafes,” says Alina.

This story is a result of a month-long on the ground effort in documenting stories from North Karnataka, which has been made possible by Deshpande Foundation, a Hubli based organisation that aims to create a nurturing environment for grassroots innovations and social entrepreneurship.

The Stories of Change in collaboration with Deshpande Foundation will be coming out with more such amazing stories from the ground. 

Don’t forget to check out Development Dialogues, an international social entrepreneurship ecosystem conference hosted at Hubali, Karnataka by Deshpande Foundation. This annual conference brings together over 400 delegates, 200 organizations, 200 startups and 1,000 university students to connect and collaborate over important issues of common interest. Register for the event here.

Like this story? Please send us emails and share your views at -thestoriesofchange@gmail.com. You can follow us on FacebookTwitterYouTube and Instagram.

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