As a child, Tiffany Fixter gravitated towards helping people with special needs and desired to be a teacher, so she went on to attend Northwest Missouri State University, earning a degree in Elementary Education and then a master’s in Special Education/Autism Spectrum Disorders from University of Kansas.
For the next seven years, Tiffany taught students with learning disabilities and autism. She enjoyed learning from her students and discovering their unique interests, talents, and ability to absorb knowledge.
She eventually left teaching to be a day programmer director for adults with disabilities. “When I was hired, I knew very little about day programs. I was baffled and distraught that approximately 80 out of 100 of my adult clients learned basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, yet could not use the restroom independently, cross the street, and lacked other daily life skills that are vital for transiting into adulthood,” she recalls.
“Our education system dropped the ball with them. Since when did memorizing multiplication facts become more important than learning to pull up your own damn pants?” Tiffany continues. “I was absolutely appalled by the number of people who are dependent on assistance with no motivation to do anything by themselves. This inspired me to empower these individuals for independence and train them for employment.”
“I wanted to do something that was cool, purposeful and gave people with disabilities an opportunity to show their abilities. I hoped to be an example for other businesses to think outside the box. That’s when you really see what people are capable of and that we’re all members of the community,” she adds.
Employing adults with special needs
Teaching and directing the adult day program prepared Tiffany for her next adventure of Pizzability and Brewability Lab—what she believes is the world’s first brewery to hire adults with developmental disabilities. Tiffany’s hospitality companies train people with disabilities to use their abilities for employment.
“For me teaching was a series of trial and errors. Trying to discover what works best for the student to learn. My teaching background prepared me to do the training aspect of Brewability and Pizzability, yet it did not prepare me for the brutal life of entrepreneurship,” she says.
As an entrepreneur, Tiffany’s greatest challenge was finance. “Funding, financing and balancing cash flow is extremely difficult. I think financial hardship is the biggest challenge for any business. I started small, applied for local grants and worked my way into proving my concept. My only investors to this day are my parents. As business owners themselves, they understand how difficult it can be. I learned from them to persevere through hard work and be dedicated to your customers and product. I am blessed to have their support and would not be in business today without them,” she says.
Brewability Lab received a response of both praise and persecution from the community of Englewood, CO. Some people expressed concerns about people with disabilities being around alcohol. Tiffany responded with: “We are brewing, not drinking. They are adults! This is precisely why I chose a brewery. It is an adult industry. Infantilizing of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) must stop.”
Tiffany learned the “Dos and Don’ts” in entrepreneurship and developed perseverance. Her first attempt was to partner up with a pre-existing business, but it wasn’t working the way she wanted it to. Tiffany went on to purchase an affordable turnkey brewery in “a rough part of town” and, from there, the business went through various transitions, including a Pizzability restaurant in a prestigious neighborhood where she did not feel her idea was embraced. Finally, she found a turnkey brewery only five minutes from her house and bought the premises.
“We are thrilled with our current location. It is located on Broadway, a main street, in downtown Englewood. We are a few blocks from Craig Hospital (the leading TBI hospital in the US) and Swedish Medical. We are near low-income housing, many of whom use wheelchairs. We are steps from public transit, which is extremely important for my staff to get around. We are close to the school for the deaf and blind as well. In short, we found our sweet spot! We are looking forward to making the neighborhood as accessible as possible. Not only for people who use wheelchairs, but adding accommodation for everyone to feel safe and comfortable,” she says.
Offering jobs for people with varying abilities
Brewability Lab focuses on each individual’s abilities. “The bartenders have autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Some are blind, deaf or have traumatic brain injuries. All my staff are expected to work. There is minimum hand-holding here. If someone needs extra support, we provide that. There are days when the staff comes in upset, due to something that happened on the bus, etc. We process through the situation and then get back to work,” Tiffany explains.
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“Each staff member understands the expectations. I try to be consistent with scheduling and work tasks. I provide modification for learning disabilities with color-coded beer taps and using a visual menu: ‘orange’ for amber ale, ‘green’ India Pale Ale. Braille was added to the taps, making it easier for employees who can’t read. Our step-by-step brewing process appeals to those with autism, who crave routine. The culture is fun, we are a bar after all. The staff loves to sing and dance while serving beer. Most importantly, my team of employees is learning to socialize and their self-confidence is skyrocketing.”
Brewability employees enhance the workplace with positive energy. “People with disabilities add so much to the workforce. My staff come bounding into work, just happy to be there. Of course everyone has good and bad days/moods, but most of the time they exude a positive vibe and you can’t help but smile. It is contagious!” Tiffany adds.
The staff also provide humorous moments. “Patrick was one of my favorite beertenders. He spoke very little but became more verbal and outgoing as he started working. One day he turned and said to me, ‘The man wants to buy a shirt. It says Brewability. I’m going to put his money in my tip jar!’ I was so impressed with the fact that he combined multiple sentences and was so funny, I said, ‘of course, take all the money!’”
A dream of changing people’s perspectives
Tiffany desires to change people’s perspectives of individuals with disabilities and empower them for employment. “I want to inspire businesses to employ people with disabilities and become accessible. We need to revamp the way the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation funds and places people with IDD. The DVR informed me Brewability does not qualify for grants due to our ratio of people with disabilities to neurotypical staff,” she explains.
As a small business, Tiffany is finding those ratios are unattainable (8:1). “Ability focused businesses like mine will never qualify under the current regulations. I believe small businesses are an excellent fit for most people with IDD because they are able to provide the focused attention and support needed. I am frustrated with the current system that places individuals with IDD in remedial positions where they get lost in the system and are not offered the support or accommodations to succeed,” she says.
“The current system heavily funds job placement, but not job retention. I have seen how the system has been manipulated so that the job coach can maximize profits at the expense of the individual. They will train someone to interview well, dress them up, then after they are placed in a job, there is little incentive for them to help them keep the job.”
Tiffany is keen for the ratio requirement to be removed and job coaches to be hired who instead use hands-on training and understand the importance of fading support gradually as the client becomes self-sufficient.
Tiffany encourages parents and special education teachers to focus on practical skills like daily living, safety, socializing, and work. This enables young adults with disabilities to gain independence and be functioning members of society. She urges teaching life skills to begin in elementary school and sees Temple Grandin as an example of hands-on learning vocational trade skills leading to a successful career and independence.
Brewability Website: https://www.brew-ability.com
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood