Craft Brewery Serves Up Jobs And Training For Adults With Developmental Disabilities

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<p>(Michael Sakas/CPR News)</p>
<p>Assistant brewer Devon Agan works behind the bar. </p>

Tiffany Fixter says people learn a little something extra when they come into her Denver bar.

She'd worked with kids with special needs for more than 10 years before she moved to Colorado to run a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. But when she started her new job, she was alarmed by what she found. 

"They're just warehoused," Fixter told Colorado Matters. "They do a lot of crafts. One out of 135 had a job and I just thought that was pretty pathetic, because they are very capable of working and they should work. They want to work." 

Image: Brewability Devon
Devon Agan, Brewability Lab's assistant brewer. 

After she was fired from that job for a "lack of creativity," Fixter started Brewability Lab, a craft brewery in Denver that hires adults with developmental disabilities.  

"This was the most creative thing I could think of," she said. "I wanted something very social and very cool. Because a lot of the job opportunities that are available -- like, bagging groceries is not necessarily a cool job."

Conversation Highlights

On why Fixter thought a brewery would be a good business for adults with disabilities to work in:

"I chose a brewery because it's a safe community space. It's not a bar, we're not slinging tequila. We're a safe space for everyone and it's very social. And [adults with disabilities] are oftentimes isolated.... They don't have a lot of opprotunites. They have a lot of volunteer opprotunities, but paid employment is really difficult. Most of the time they're either non verbal or non readers or money is difficult. And so any of those things makes someone deemed unemployable by the state, so they actually can't get a job."

Fixter's original goal was to provide job training for employees, to eventually leave and work at other breweries. On why that hasn't yet happened: 

"I think that, they need a lot more support than what I was imaging at first. It just depends on their range of skills. We have Devon, he's an assistant brewer, we do think that if he can continue with his path of brewing and learning, I do think he can get employed at another brewery. Where as, I have other guys that are in need of constant assistance and just making sure they're OK. Other days are great, some days they need more help. And I try to make sure I'm fading out those supports, so that they're not dependent on me."

On how the brewery is designed to be accessible to both employees and customers: 

"The color coding [of the beer taps] is for a lot of reasons. It's for our bartenders who are non-readers, it's for our customers who may not be able to read or just struggle a little bit. We do have some people with disabilities that come in on a consistent basis. And then we also have a braille menu for individuals who are visually impaired. I have one beertender who is blind."

On why Fixter believes she hasn't received funding from the state: 

"They said it was because I have stated I employ adults with developmental disabilities and they'd like to see a more competitive employment. So they would like to see, two or three neurotypical people per person with special needs. But that's not realistic where we are and the size of the brewery. And I'd like them to be as independent as possible, so if you have someone who is constantly shadowing you and almost being like a para, they're not going to grow as much. Because then they aren't forced to do it, and I don't want someone else doing it for them."