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Workshops popular among those with learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities learn the best by doing. The workshops of Lyhty ry offer those with learning disabilities diverse working and learning environments where support is always readily available. With the help of the Career key model, new work opportunities are sought from businesses where the small tasks are often left incomplete.

IPI Kulmakuppila café has been operating for a couple of years and offers pleasant work for dozens of people with learning disabilities. The basic idea of the supported workshop operations is that working can only be practised with real customers. Now, new work opportunities are sought from businesses hoping to advance their diversity.

During lunchtime, the IPI Kulmakuppila café in Kallio, Helsinki is bustling with people. The service staff weaves through the customers to fill the buffet table, wipe tables and welcome hungry new arrivals. Regular customers know the place not only for its tasty lunch and the imaginative decor but also for the fact that the service staff have learning disabilities.

IPI Kulmakuppila is owned by Kehitysvammaisten työllisyyden tukisäätiö (support foundation for the employment of people with learning disabilities), working in cooperation with Lyhty ry, an organiser of workshops for people with learning disabilities. The service staff is made up of the participants of Lyhty's café workshop who are practising café work, ranging from making specialty coffees to cleaning, baking and marketing on the social media.

In addition to café service skills, the workshop operations improve problem-solving skills and independence.

One of the most important aspects of the operating model of Lyhty's workshops is supported practical work. IPI Kulmakuppila has one instructor and one auxiliary instructor per four people with learning disabilities. A skilled chef and a restaurant manager are in charge of planning the café's operations and managing the overall activities.

"To really make this work, we must have a firm concept. We spent a long time searching for a suitable, central location where we could be seen and heard by people and we'd have a flow of customers throughout the day", says Marja Visti-Koskinen, team leader of Lyhty's café workshop and the Chair of the Board of Kahvila IPI Oy.

Practical work beats schoolwork

In addition to the café workshop operating at IPI, the 23-year-old Lyhty ry runs six other workshops as well as assisted housing services. The city's social services manage the application process of the workshops as the workshop activities are a part of the work-related and daily operations of the City of Helsinki. The workshops include music, gardening, media work and textile arts. Lyhty also offers education for the preparation of the independent life after comprehensive school.

"People with learning disabilities find it important to practise skills in real life as it may be hard for them to learn things sitting at a school desk. Some may learn a skill after trying a few times while for others, it may take 2,000 repetitions."

The division of labour is based on the personal skills and wishes of the workshop participants. If necessary, they are given a role that is designed just for them.

"For example, one of our participants loves to dress up as a penguin, so we created the Water Boy character for him to sell bottled water at events and parks, and that gives him the opportunity to find employment."

The workshop operations are based on constant interaction and evaluation, and over the couple of years, many of the participants have shown immense progress. In addition to café service skills, the workshop operations improve problem-solving skills and independence.

Corporate cooperation would save society's resources

In order to expand the real-life employment opportunities, Lyhty ry is aiming to cooperate with businesses.

"There are 25,000 people with learning disabilities of working age in Finland, and overall, finding employment for all of them is an impossible goal. People with learning disabilities are forced to compete for the same jobs as other people. Even if they have the necessary training or education, businesses avoid hiring people with learning disabilities as the assumption is that they need more support than others. We should reflect on whether paid work is the only value or whether the issue could be resolved differently.

The solution developed by Lyhty ry is the Career key workshop model. The association is currently taking part in the Ratkaisu 100 contest of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra with the model. In the model, people with learning disabilities would do the tasks that are usually left incomplete in businesses, managed by their instructors. Businesses would not hire people with learning disabilities as employees but, instead, would buy a service package in which they pay for the task which may take weeks, months or even just a couple of hours to perform.

"We can also come to the businesses to find tasks that the employees find tricky but for which there are no assigned employees. We can, for example, assume the responsibility for making coffee, doing small office and gardening work or managing the catering of an event."

Model promotes diversity

When a business buys a service package, the instructor's wages are calculated from the profit, after which the rest is divided among the workshop participants.

Hiring a workshop group is a great way of promoting multiculturalism in a work community. Visti-Koskinen also sees the service as an ideal solution for small companies that are hesitant about hiring employees.

The first customers of the Career key model have been Port of Helsinki, Suomen Messut and the Telia 5G Arena where the workshop groups have been in charge of tidiness.

"At the moment, we are building the brand to make it easier to sell to businesses. If some of the income to people with learning disabilities came from businesses, it would also save the resources of the society."

Marja Visti-Koskinen will be delighted to answer any enquiries concerning cooperation.

Please contact: marja.visti-koskinen@lyhty.net, tel. +358 (0)50 336 237

Author and photos: Anna Väre

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