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Filling in the gaps for Estonians living with a disability


Conscious cafe: (L-R) Karl Pedemann, Katrin Ōunapuu and Vello Leitham from Kehrwieder.


I get to the cafe one minute late. I take off my coat and scarf. The smell of coffee beans is enough to make my mouth water. But I’m not in the cafe to order a latte. After I put my bag down I head behind the counter. Everything is in a foreign language and I can’t read a word. All of a sudden a line of people form wanting soup and sandwiches. What I have I gotten myself into?

I’m at Kehrwieder cafe to get a glimpse into what it’s like to work as a person with a disability in Tallinn, Estonia.

The cafe is owned by Vello Leitham. Originally from Canada, Leitham made a conscious decision to employ people with disabilities at his cafes – which he owns three – from the start of running the business. In Canada he sees people with disabilities in the workplace as an ordinary thing so he thought he should implement the same principles in his own business.

In running his business he wants to have values and a set of rules on how he can measure his choices. And one of the choices is to put back into the community and to have that set of values in the company culture.


“Employing people with challenges establishes a space where there is more tolerance, understanding, patience, dialogue and these are all positive values,” Leitham says.

One of the cafe employees Katrin Ōunapuu is deaf and cannot speak. She has been working at the cafe for nine years. Before that, she worked as a sanitary cleaner and sorted out clothing at a second hand shop. She says the most difficult part of her job is heating the pot when cooking, which has nothing to do with her impairments.

Karl Pedemann has been working as the project manager of Kehrwieder for less than one year. After working in the restaurant business for 25 years, this is the first time working in a business which actively employ people with disabilities.

“There really is no difference,” says Pedemann. “But when there are more establishments where everybody has some sort of difference it prepares society for different people, not just people with disabilities.”

Leitham thinks employers in Estonia are interested in employing people with disabilities, but they aren’t sure how to do it. Where do they find people with disabilities? How do they contact them?

One option for employers is to contact disability organisations. An organisation which offers and mediates work for people with intellectual and mental health disabilities is Foundation Hea Hoog. The organisation’s clients currently make items such as knitwear and ceramics which are sold online.

To expand the activities for the organisation, Foundation Hea Hoog are setting up a cafe which will be run by their clients. The cafe will create an opportunity for people who have disabilities to be more integrated into society, to learn skills through practice and earn money.

Anu Hall is a board member of Foundation Hea Hoog and she says the time is right now to open the cafe because the Estonian people are more open to people with disabilities now more than ever.

“I think the attitudes of Estonians get better and better every year,” says Hall.

Estonia was under the Soviet Union only 25 years ago. In Soviet Union times, people with disabilities did not exist in the community – they were neglected and hidden away in homes. A cafe like the one currently being developed would never exist in Soviet Times. “No way!” says Hall.

The idea for the cafe came from social policy lecturer at Tallinn University Zsolt Bugarszki, who moved to Estonia two years ago from Hungary. He says out of all the post-Soviet Union countries Estonia is one of the most developed in terms of overcoming corruption and making some steps of progress in the disability sector.

“In Estonia they used their time well, although there are still a lot of problems here. There is still a transition, but the progression is obvious,” Bugarszki says.

One of the problems is the current social welfare system. In Europe, Estonia has one of the lowest social expenditures; it is between 12 and 16 per cent of the GDP depending on the year. If a person lives with a disability and their family member is a caregiver, the family will receive as little as 19 euros a month. Bugarszki says it might as well be zero euros as it costs the same amount for administration fees.

Another ongoing issue with the social welfare system is anyone who has a condition which may hinder their ability to work, no matter how minor or big the condition effects them, they can claim a pension.

“It’s been a farce,” says Vello Leitham, the cafe owner. “People have been claiming disability status to get money.”

If a person has a family member who is a doctor it makes it even easier for them to claim a disability pension. Leitham says he knows of some communities in the south of Estonia where 70 to 100 per cent of the community is disabled so they can receive a pension.

Although official Estonian statistics say that 10 per cent of Estonians live with a disability, both Bugarszki and Leitham believe this number is much higher than in reality.

Juri Lehtmets was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and receives a disability pension. The public administration student at Tallinn University of Technology says growing up with physical challenges in Estonia has not been easy. Finding an accessible school was difficult when he was young, but that hasn’t stopped him from heading into tertiary education, being a board member at the Estonian Association of Muscular Disorders or playing electric wheelchair football.

Lehtmets has learnt to work his way around the social welfare system in order to make the most of it. For example, despite his preference to live in Tallinn, he lives one hour away from Tallinn in Kehtna in a student dormitory because he gets more personal assistant hours. In Tallinn, individuals who need a personal assistant can get 33 free hours a week, while in Kehtna he receives 140 hours a week.

But like the new cafe which is being developed by Foundation Hea Hoog, Lehtmets is proactively working with an organisation to find ways to fill in the gaps for people with disabilities that the Estonian government do not fulfil.

Lehtmets acts as client resources for a website, which has been developed by Tallinn University lecturer Bugarszki, called Helpific. Helpific connects volunteers to those who need help with everyday activities. Lehtmets has received help from volunteers who give him rides and take him to events.

Laur Raudsoo studies social work and is a volunteer at Helpific. He has been helping Foundation Hea Hoog set up the cafe.

“Maybe [accepting people with disabilities is] a difficult thing because Estonians are so inner people, so shy [sic]”, says Raudsoo.

He is optimistic that the projects he is involved with will make Estonians more open to difference.

Lehtmets believes the more people with disabilities that integrate into society the better. It means less stigmas and better attitudes. And with the new Estonian Work Ability Reform starting in July 2016, it is expected these positive changes are more likely to happen.

“[Estonians] have to get used to the fact that [people with disabilities are] there and they’re not going anywhere”, says Lehtmets.

The Work Ability Reform will focus on an individual’s ability to work in the labour market. Hall says the timing of this reform is another reason why now is a good time to open the cafe.

Anu Hall from Foundation Hea Hoog says that along with the cafe being a place where people with disabilities can learn skills, it will progress people’s thoughts on disability. In a survey she undertook, it found when employers have had an experience with a person with a disability they are more open to employing them. If not, there can be a lot of uncertainty. The Work Ability Reform aims to help change the mindsets of employers as it evaluates a people’s ability, not disability, in terms of getting employment.

The Foundation Hea Hoog cafe, which will be called SILD meaning Bridge in Estonian, has a business plan and a financial plan. They have just finished filming a video for a crowdfunding campaign which will begin in the next couple of months. SILD will open in May 2016 to start employing people.

I finish my own two-hour shift at Kehrwieder cafe and am feeling ready for a break. It was a learning experience for myself, Leitham and Pedemann. I’ve never worked in hospitality before and they haven’t employed a person who uses a wheelchair yet. The bench was a bit high, but a small modification to move some things to a reachable level for someone who is sitting down would be easy enough.

“To decide to employ people with challenges actually takes work,” says Leitham. “So maybe recognition for going the extra mile should be considered, but we haven’t done it for that reason.”



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