Calgary-area businesses adopt inclusive model, opening the door for workers living with disabilities – Calgary

A Calgary food truck owner hopes its inclusive business model is enough to provide a diverse and secure future for their son and others living with disabilities.

Owner Barbara Lee’s 23-year-old son Frederico has been living with a rare degenerative condition called HSP11, a disease she says has slowed him down and left him dependent on using a wheelchair.

“Of course we want to see the best for him, for his future — but also because we realize that this type of a business is a perfect one to be inclusive,” says Lee.

Italian Please! operates out of The Ampersand food court on 4th Avenue in downtown Calgary and has been serving lunch since September 2022.

Since then, it’s mandated that fifty per cent of its employees live with a disability or are part of the LGBTQ2+ community.

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“The bottom line is that everybody has the need and the right to employment that give satisfaction, that gives the possibility for personal growth and that just does so much for the community as a whole,” says Lee.

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Lee and her husband Lucio recently moved to Canada from Italy. They say the food truck is just the beginning of their business venture and hope by the end of the year to open a full-scale restaurant.

“We want to employ more people, as many as we possibly can and with our business model and Roman food, there is so much scope for growth, but we need more space because we’re in a pretty small space here,” Lee said .

Italian Please! employee Penelope Bridges is also looking to grow as an aspiring chef. She has big dreams and says she wants to open a food truck of her own serving perogies to the community.

“Working in a food truck makes me happy that giving food to people makes them happy,” Bridges said.

“It took me a long time to figure out what I am good at, and food is the only thing that I’m good at,” she adds.

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Bridges was born deaf and is hard of hearing. In spite of the challenges life has thrown at her, Bridges believes she’s found her calling working in the kitchen.

“She helps with all of the prep of all of the salads and all of the cold part,” says Lee. “She’s also together with Frederico, she interacts with our clients and she’s a fundamental part of our team.”

Italian Please! isn’t alone in helping to provide a safe place to work for people living with disabilities.

Gina Smith is one of the owners of a new arcade and escape room called Retro Oasis in Okotoks, and said they opened the doors with their son’s disability in mind.

“Its my husband’s love of the gaming that was the driving force, but we also thought it would be a great place for our son to get some work experience,” Smith said.

Smith’s 24-year-old son Alex is neurodivergent: he is on the autism spectrum and lives with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and has found it’s difficult to find work because of his disability.

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ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that presents in a wide range of ways but is generally characterized by someone’s ability to regulate attention — both inattention or hyperfocusing — as well as hyperactivity and impulsivity.

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People with ADHD benefit from structure and routine, experts say.

Autism is even more nuanced and how it presents in people is specific to each individual.

For decades, autism meant kids with severe language, intellectual and social impairments and unusual, repetitive behaviours. But the definition has gradually expanded and now includes milder, related conditions.

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Alex said there “aren’t a lot of inclusive places out there where he can get the support he needs” for him to work independently.

“I think it’s very cool that they were determined to make this out, to build out an entire business that I could have a job,” Alex said.

With the new business, Smith can now provide the support that Alex needs — but says she can’t help but worry about what will happen to him when she and her husband are no longer around to support him.

“We’re hoping that giving him this work experience and maybe he’ll take this over some day, I don’t know,” Gina said.

Alex, who is in charge of wiping down the machines and counting the tokens said, “it’s too soon for that, but I think I’ll be just fine working here, manning things and just using this as a stepping-stone for a future career or something.”

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