The Able Workers

Podcast Episode 64 What next? is a question we constantly ask ourselves as we help our young people navigate through the education system. As they get older and age out of the system, this question becomes more urgent and often the answer isn’t as easy to find. This week’s guests Adeel and Anthony asked that exact question and when no answer was obvious they created their own solution: Able Coffee Roasters.

Able Coffee Roasters is on a mission to create sustainable paid employment for young people with additional needs. Through the use of innovative techniques like point of view video modeling and focusing on making accommodations so that each young person can excel at the tasks they are given, Able Coffee Roasters is answering for some young people the question of what next.

What Anthony and Adeel are doing is not only inspiring because it has the potential to help so many young people on their journey to independence but is inspiring because it shows what is possible if we focus not on the question but on looking around for potential solutions in our own communities.

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Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 64 of the Journey Skills podcast. One of the main things this podcast is all about is possibilities. There are many great projects out there all over the world providing the possibility for an independent future for our young people whether that surround building friendships, finding a community or even finding a home of their own. As you know by now, I believe employment is the key to everything when it comes to independence because from that will come so many other things. When it comes to what is possible in employment opportunities then this episode is a perfect fit.

I’m talking to Adeel and Anthony from Able Coffee Roasters who have taken that idea of imagining the possibilities and done something about it. They’re using their own resources to solve a problem they identified from their day jobs as educators of young people with additional needs. They saw a lack of employment options and to an extent a lack of employers’ understanding. So Able Coffee Roasters is born and is a growing business as you’ll hear from them. And it’s also one of those ideas that could be replicated and that to me is a great value in hearing about their journey.

I’m sure you’ll agree after listening that it’s incredible what Adeel and Anthony have already achieved in such a short time scale and with limited amounts of money and it illustrates what is possible when you just go out and decide to do it.

DEBRA: Today I’m talking to Adeel Asif and Anthony Palmeri from Able Coffee Roasters. Welcome.

ANTHONY: Thanks for having us.

DEBRA: Can you just tell me a little bit about what you do, your background and what Able Coffee Roasters is all about?

ANTHONY: Of course, so right now, we’re at the school site that I currently work at. I’m a teacher in South Orange County, a public high school teacher and I teach an autism specific class. I love it. I’ve been teaching for eight years and right now. I’m really working on vocational skills, functional life skills and really trying to get my students working in the community and that’s kind of what really is the passion and what has driven Adeel and I to do what we’re doing; create jobs because currently at least according to the National Labor Statistics, it’s over 83% unemployment for individuals with disabilities. So, you’ll hear in a sec why we’re so passionate about it but before I get to that, I want to introduce my co-owner, Adeel Asif.

ADEL: Alright guys. So my name is Adeel Asif, I also work for a public school system here in South Orange County. I’m currently at a middle school site, also working in an autism specific classroom and my role is actually as a behavioral interventionist. So, I work mainly with students working on all sorts of behaviors and shaping appropriate functional behaviors for them to work and have jobs.

Anthony and I actually worked previously in the same classroom, that’s where met each other and together, you know, we work on these skills and these job tasks with our students to train them and teach them the appropriate vocational and job skills for them have functional jobs in the community.

Through this, Anthony and I kind of realized that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is over 80% and there’s a big need for that in our community and kind of saw that various communities. And so, that’s kind of where Able was born.

ANTHONY: Yes. So you know, it’s a common concern for parents and educators especially at least in California, that the age of 22 that’s when educational services cease and knowing that statistic of greater than 80% unemployment rate and so we are trying to get our students into the jobs in our community, but it’s very, very hard.

Currently, I do have my whole class, they’re working at a pizza shop down the street, folding the boxes, cleaning tables. But these are jobs that are not paid, they’re not long-term. It’s frustrating to me as an educator and also as a parent too, not for me personally but for the parents of the students in my classes, it’s extremely scary and frustrating. Adeel and I, we saw that so after school we say, “How could we better serve our students?” We formed an LLC, the able workers and we’re doing business as Able Coffee Roasters. We’ve taught ourselves how to roast over the summer and we just wanted to create the opportunity ourselves because we felt we are the most competent, the most passionate people to do this.

For instance, some students work are at the grocery store or are an apprentice at the pizza shop, but the manager at that store isn’t necessarily trained on how to help them excel or what accommodations they need to excel. These are things that we love, we’re passionate about. We were very literate. I’m using video modeling techniques and stuff on the iPad to increase independence.

These are all things that we know how to do and really, this is what got us started. Over the summer, our passion was just to create a business that creates paying jobs for individuals post 22. So all of our employees, they are the ones that are doing packaging, they are the ones that are doing labeling, they’re the ones that ship out the coffee to our customers and the whole goal is to create paying jobs for individuals with disabilities.

ADEEL: Just want to jump in and say… I think a lot of reasons we actually chose to start with coffee is because here definitely in South Orange County, coffee is a big culture and it’s a community. And we want our people living inside our community to see that our workers in this population that we work with and we teach every day are able. So, they are able to have a job. Each one of these guys is able to do a different task. We’re able to train them and teach them by breaking down those skills using our materials and our visuals, using strategies we know from school, to teach them to be able in the community.

So, coffee in itself, (I don’t know if Anthony mentioned but) he used to be a chef so he kind of has a little bit of background and experience. I mean, we’re still trying to perfect ourselves with our beans and where we source them from, and the different variations of bean roasting levels and the different profiles that come in and out of the natural beans. So, that’s still for us, a learning process.

And my background before was a little bit of business and marketing so I kind of have been able to structure our social media and our website to make it a little bit more friendly for people when they see it, it’s like “Oh these two guys with some experience in this. They’re able to create merchandise and shirts and sweaters that different people in the community can purchase and wear, and represent the brand that stands for individuals with disabilities having a job.”

And I think also recently, one of the things that we’ve been focusing on is the places where we actually source our coffee beans from. We were able to get in contact with a foundation in Colombia, Guatemala known as Cafe Femenino and they actually educate and train women farmers in their countries to create paying jobs for them over there. So, we’re sourcing our beans from them and ship them here and roasting them. The jobs that are being done by the people with disabilities whether it’s the roasting, packaging, labeling, even to the shipment to the customers. I think it’s a full circle of good that we’re returning to the community and so I think our consumers really have been able to appreciate that and see the authenticity of it.

ANTHONY: And we’re also even going down to Peru this summer to visit that Cafe Femenino farm and they’re having us go down there and do like a workshop with individuals with disabilities and to also establish more relations with the farmers down there too. So, we really have been active for under a year.

ADEEL: Yes, almost a year. We started last summer and starting point was like “Oh, let’s have a coffee shop and have these guys just work in our coffee shop but we kind of came to see that to start off like that we need to be established; people need to know that we’re out there, that Able Coffee Roasters is a product. Creating coffee and creating jobs for people with disabilities. We just started off with an Able Cafe or an Able Shop, nobody would really know what we are yet, so we started the product itself.

So, when we started roasting our beans and selling our beans and our merchandise online, people start to see us and see that momentum of us in the community. And so, what we started doing was a couple of different events in Orange County and Los Angeles area. For people to come out and try our samples and see our Able workers actually working our booth, serving at our sample coffee, selling our products.

So essentially, I think our next step for Able is to have a storefront cafe where we can then create and accommodate more jobs where these guys are working as baristas and serving the community with good coffee and we’re able to create these jobs and pay them. They are included and inclusive in the community. It’s like they’re able to work.

ANTHONY: That is really our philosophy that we believe there’s a job for everybody. When Adeel and I taught ourselves how to roast, it took us a lot of time to figure out “Okay, how can we accommodate the unique needs of every employee or intern that we have working with us and how do we make that efficient so this is a fully efficient, productive business?”

We drew tap visual task analysis, breaking up the tasks using video modeling, providing breaks and ways for our employees communicate because a lot of them can’t talk. They use their iPads. The things that we’re doing, we are productive and we are able to turn a profit. We can do it. We just have to be creative and see what some of our students’ strengths are and really capitalize on that.

ADEEL: One great example, on our actual coffee packs on our labeling, we’ve simplified it to the point for individuals that are nonverbal and can’t write. We’ve broken it down and if you have a chance, definitely check out our website because you can see the packaging on there and see how it is done. All they have to do is just check off or circle a mark when the beans are roasted, what day they were roasted on, and the roast level. We have it just listed light, medium and dark and all they have to do literally is check it off. It’s very simple. Just our labeling, our different roasts, they’re just stickers and all you have to do is peel and stick. So, individuals with minimal fine motor skills, stuff like that, they’re able to do those tasks very easily.

DEBRA: Can I just take you back a little bit to the beginning of when you decided to do coffee roasting and how you set up the organization, the challenges you had because obviously, there must have been funding, finding a location, that kind of thing. How did you work through that?

ANTHONY: We’ve been funding it ourselves, with our own money and we haven’t had any investors. Everything we’ve made goes back into the business.

ADEEL: It’ all going right back into the packaging and ordering the beans and finding a commercial industrial kitchen to roast from and getting our roaster. We pretty much have it on like a lease. And we roast and when we sell, we do events, we just pay for the roaster until eventually, it will pay itself off.

Starting up I think was just kind of doing it. And Anthony had a name in mind and I liked Able because it literally defines our mission and with my background in design, Photoshop, stuff like that, I was kind of able to come up with our logo which is also in itself is a good representation of the brand. It’s actually a puzzle piece with various other different puzzle pieces coming together and there are different shades of blue and gray and black intertwined into it. Coming together to make a bigger puzzle piece. Kind of indicating that we’re not only working with individuals with autism because a lot of times, people associate the color blue and a puzzle piece with autism. So, we used all these different shades of blue and gray and making up larger pictures because we’re supporting individuals with autism but also all sorts of disabilities.

What also helped was coming up with merchandise. So, when people saw Anthony and I wearing shirts with a logo with different phrases. People start asking these questions like “Oh, what is this? What is Able?” and we told them, “Oh, this is something we’ve been working on” and we got the momentum that way.

DEBRA: So you’re actually leasing premises as you need them rather than having a permanent base?

ANTHONY: So with us, it’s all baby steps. We’ve learned this like get these big ideas and stuff like that but literally, we’re funding this with our own money and working after school and on the weekends; roasting with our students. But we are doing those baby steps.

ADEEL: Our goal is to have a permanent location where we can have our roasters set up in our own café. Our own shop where we have our cafe storefront with our barista and then we have that back area where we’re also roasting and creating our product. We will also be training these guys so we would have a training facility or room within that same permanent location where they can come in and we can teach them these tasks.

DEBRA: So given that you both have obviously full-time jobs is this a weekend that you’re doing most of your selling and marketing?

ADEEL: On the weekends there’s either two-day or three-day event. Sometimes, we have events that we literally go to after we get off work. So our school day goes to 3:00 or 3:30 and the event starts at 5:00, we have to get our stuff ready to go and we have our coffee brewed within those 2 hours. Then we’re at the event, we set up our booth and we pick up our guys, get the job done, they come to help us out. Pretty much just do it after our day jobs and on the weekends.

DEBRA: You talk a little bit about reasonable adjustments. You mentioned iPads and using that kind of thing, is that working really well?

ANTHONY: Yes, it is using these accommodations. These are things that our employees need. Like an accommodation is different than a modification, right? You’re not really changing anything, you’re just giving them for instance, larger print text, that’s an accommodation. Somebody might have a hard time seeing some visuals or they can’t read, so we do use a lot of visuals

ADEEL: I think the really great thing that we’ve been able to use and take advantage of is point of view (POV) video modeling. I can describe that for anyone who doesn’t know but video modeling is kind of a POV video of the person from their point of view, either scooping the coffee beans or packing them into a bag. Performing each of the steps from that person’s view and then they’re able to watch that and replicate that. Or there are other angles where you can film another person actually doing it but not from a point of view angle. So they’re watching somebody else do it and then they can also replicate that. So there are just different variations of video modeling that we use depending on the person that’s doing that job task.

ANTHONY: Video modeling is something that we really use a lot to train our employees. So with video modelling is imagine when you’re trying to learn a new task. So I use this as an example all the time, for me because I have a very, very very, hard time tying a tie, but if I was to read directions, without any visuals so just on how to tie a tie. It could help some people, right? But it wouldn’t help me. And then imagine if there was like maybe a step by step with visuals on how to tie a tie like maybe 6 steps that can help a lot more people but not me. But then maybe you watch videos of somebody doing it but not the same angle, that would help me a lot more but it’s not going to help me because I can’t generalize that vision.

Generalizing is very hard for individuals with disabilities.

Generalizing is very hard for individuals with disabilities. It’s hard to train a lot of people, it’s challenging for me. So point of view, actually doing it from the angle of the person doing the task can help. So a video on YouTube of somebody is doing a point of view tying a tie, you would get it from their angle tying a tie. So that would be a lot easier for me. That’s the best way.

Now the even better way which is to make a point of view with video modelling is that it allows you and for instance for what we’re doing to video model packing coffee or weighing their ounces, scooping it through the bundle, packaging or sticker labeling but the thing that’s gets amazing about that, about video modelling in this circumstance is we are video modelling the exact object that our employees are using.

That’s not like a random scooper on Google image or on another video on YouTube. No, it’s the one that Adeel and I already video modelled using our iPad or iPhone just direct hovering over whatever task it is. All you see is the hands doing the task; my two hands or his two hands or their two hands doing the task and it is the exact same objects into objects that they’re going to be using so they do not have to generalize.

So, why is that good? Because Adeel and I and the job coaches, we don’t have to verbally prompt the employees. That’s a concern for parents and teachers, that our students are prompt-dependent because they always have somebody saying, “Do this. Do this. Do this. Do this.” Video modelling can really help to eliminate that. So that is why we use video modelling in our company and its research-based. It also benefits other things; social skills to hygiene to anything you can think of. But we’re using it right now to package coffee because that’s what we’re having our employees do.

So I encourage our listeners, parents, video modelling look it up and there’s apps and stuff like that too. But you can also just use the video on your cell phone, on your iPad and then just maybe you need a partner to video you doing whatever task that is. That you could slow motion, you could roll forward or backwards as well.

We do cooking lessons at my school in my class and we use video modelling to do all the cooking lessons like this step by step. It’s like making nachos, putting the chips on the plate, putting the cheese, putting the beans or whatever toppings and then going to the microwave and putting it in the microwave. Somebody’s following while you do that and then when the student comes and it’s ready for them to go and then they just preview the video modeling and then you let them go. Then they can either fast forward, pause it, or go backwards so it increases independence and it eliminates the need to generalize. They’re not going to have to process your request. There is something to watch the video and then they do it on their own and it’s the objects that you’re using as well.

ADEEL: Yes, the good thing about that is like Anthony mentioned you can go back, you can go forward, you can make different little clips to teach them each of the steps individually. Each of the steps can be broken down and create a chain of different steps, tasks that you break down and teach either from the beginning to the end or from the end to the beginning depending on which area they need most assistance in.

And then eventually, the goal of it is fade out that video model, so once the task is mastered and once, they’re able to be efficient at it, each of the steps can be faded out. So say they’re able to do steps one through five, and the sixth one is mastered, you show them the first 5 clips and then the last one they do individually. And so gradually, fade out each of those steps to where they’re able to master that task fully and able to create their independence from start to finish, they can create a full-finished product.

DEBRA: Can we just finish up by talking a little bit about the future because I know you mentioned that you want to open a coffee shop and I’d like to learn a little bit more about that but also, I think what future challenges you see and the areas that you’re finding that you really need to focus on?

ADEEL As far as future for us right now I think it is just continuing to get the word out we exist here in California. I don’t think we have seen or came across anybody else doing it the way we are. And as far as any future challenges, I think it’s just going to be finding that ideal spot for us to start our shop. I think once people start to hear that we have this location and we’ve created these jobs and these opportunities, I think individuals will start coming and see that they’re able to be involved in the community.

I think one of the things that we definitely need to work on for the future is we want to try to get our coffee into the community and into different markets, farmer’s markets and natural organic shops such as The Whole Foods. Bigger grocery stores, bigger shops and stuff like that I think is a little bit more of our future challenge and getting to that larger scale. We’re so small scale right now, with our coffee only roasted in small batches. Each batches is roasted individually, packed individually by our workers. I think that large scale is going to be our biggest challenge, getting a bigger roaster to be able to hopefully accommodate those larger vendors that want to have our coffee or even other coffee shops that want to serve our beans.

It doesn’t have to be Able Coffee can only be bought at our own store but at other coffee vendors who have our beans as part of their coffee shop. Their customers will know that their supporting individuals with disabilities to have a job because the coffee that they’re using comes from Able Coffee Roasters who roasts their own beans.

ANTHONY: We don’t really want to stop with a coffee shop either. We’re working on a non-profit too that that’s essentially, it’s going to be a day program that’s going to prepare students for various jobs, in a for a profit company. So we’re not going to just have Able Coffee Roasters, we’re also working on other businesses because not every employee might be suitable for working in food service. We’re looking at possibly opening up a fresh food shop, car wash or paper shredding company.

We have a lot of different ideas we are working on including a non-profit, with programs and training facilities that’s going to be preparing individuals post 22. So once they’re done with their education, we want us to continue that education post 22 and help them continue to work on those daily living skills, those vocational skills. They might not work at a coffee shop, they might want to work at different settings and we want to be able to provide that opportunity.

Why we started an LLC was to show that employing individuals with disabilities doesn’t have to be a non-profit, it could be efficient, profitable and successful, just like any other business. I hope that comes through too because that’s what we really want to show as well. We can be successful because we are able, we just know how to accommodate our employees. And we’re not going to stop until we’re a success. And I know we will be, we’re picking up momentum already but yes, the challenges we’re looking forward to them.

DEBRA: Guys, thank you so much for your time.

ADEEL: Thank you for having us.

ANTHONY: Thank you for having us.

DEBRA: Key takeaway? If you have an idea, just go out and do it. You just need to get started.

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