Turning the tables on disability

Written by Brent on September 3rd, 2011

People with mental illness and disability – or as current politically correct speech has it, the intellectually challenged – suffer an enormous amount of discrimination and isolation. Broader society is impatient, defensive, usually awkward, and often hostile if not openly vindictive towards them. Meanwhile 99% of what irks the world is perpetrated by those ostensibly of sound mind.

Fortunately, under our constitution, people with special needs qualify for “disability grants” (over one million South Africans currently receive permanent disability grants). But that doesn’t change the need for a sense of self-worth, to enjoy meaningful work, to have at once some independence and yet the feeling that one belongs to society.

20 Breda Street is an old mansion. It was a hostel for young women and home to some of the Jewish refugees who came on the S.S. Stuttgart in October 1936. The house has remained to serve the Jewish community and today it houses the workshops for Astra, a sheltered employment centre. Started in 1950 with one person, there are now 65 people working here, all with special needs.

Director Merle Furman took me on a tour. Upstairs and downstairs there are various work rooms, one with several magnificently old wooden looms, still in use, producing quality work. A soft baby blanket is in the making according to pattern and design by its operator. There are sewing rooms, rag doll manufacturing and a carpentry shop making doll houses. One fellow collects stamps from envelopes to sell to philatelist dealers for the centre. I notice a page of six-cent Ugandan stamps with George the Fifth’s head on them.

All the manufactured items are available in a spacious gift shop.

There is also a restaurant café open to the public. Renovated and reopened in March last year, it is now housed in a solarium with views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Glass panel walls can slide open in summer and there is an outside table too. It’s an airy, comfortable space. Twice a day, a dear called Margaret Catzel plays the piano.

There is no signage on the street, just look for number 20.

The waiters greet you and introduce themselves. As several struggle with writing, the menu is accompanied by a pen and a form on which you fill in your own order.

I found staff interactions relaxed and virtually normal. One was gratified by the thought too of how the tables are turned here – since some of the waiters would probably be less enthusiastically welcomed in return if they went as patrons to certain restaurants in the city.

Destigmatization and breeding familiarity is an important function of this kind of establishment.

The kitchen is kosher and all items are milchik – in practice it’s vegetarian, though there is tuna lasagna and smoked salmon bagels. (The chef overseeing the kitchen is fully qualified.)

Breakfasts are the normal options (no bacon of course): muesli, yoghurt and stewed fruit compote or omelettes, scrambled and fried eggs with tomato and toast. For light meals there are sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes; and then there is a soup, quiche, and pasta of the day. The thick, traditional butternut broth I tried was quite fortifying.

The restaurant kitchen also does outside catering, providing large foil containers serving eight persons by pre-order. Prices are reasonable.

Coffee time is also open on occasional Sundays (they do advertise in the paper) and available for for private functions.

I doubt there is anything like it elsewhere in the world.

COFFEE TIME at 20 Breda Street, Gardens. Tel. 021 461-8414. Open for breakfast (served all day), teas and light lunches. Monday to Thursday 8am to 3.45pm, Friday 8am to 3pm. Booking essential.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 12 August 2011.


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