Giving a fair chance

Max Simpson talks with Life about the training centre he runs for those with cognitive disabilities

People with special needs may be able to receive education but they haven't been given a fair chance in terms of employment. And that's exactly what Max Simpson wants to change. The 31-year-old educator is the co-founder of Steps with Theera (stepswiththeera.com), a cafe on Ekamai Soi 10 that is staffed by trainees with cognitive disabilities. It also functions as a vocational training centre for them. Through showing what they are capable of, Max hopes, those born with cognitive disabilities will be given more opportunities to work and contribute to society.

Tell us what did you do before co-founding Steps with Theera.

I worked at an international special-needs school in Bangkok until I became deputy head, before I resigned to open Steps with Theera. While I was there, I noticed a lack of opportunity for the students to move on beyond the school and transition into work. I felt there needed to be more vocational training. I started to take small groups of students to Theera, my co-founder's shop on Sukhumvit 42, and we saw positive outcomes quite quickly. We also went to the Bangkok Farmers' Market and other places so the students would get work experience. So we took the jump to open Steps with Theera as a cafe/vocational training centre.

You studied special-education needs and inclusion at the University of Northampton. What drew you to these fields in the first place?

My younger brother has autism, so I grew up seeing the challenges he faced. Even in the UK, where there's a lot of systems and support, he still slipped through the cracks. He has a bachelor's degree and can do all sorts of things, but he still can't get a job. I grew up seeing my parents fight with school and government authorities to get him what he deserved. He has a lot to offer, but hasn't been given a chance to do so. This fuels me to specialise in this area and I also really enjoy teaching.

Can you tell us what kind of place Steps with Theera is?

It depends. If we're talking to customers, it's a cafe. But if we're talking to people in the education field, it's a vocational training centre for people with cognitive disabilities. Steps means several things -- steps to independence, employment, the future and so on. Similar models exist in the UK and the US, but they're typically set up by parents of kids with special needs. They are usually break-even projects to employ their child and a couple others, but we want to take it further.

What kind of impact do you wish to create through Steps?

The first thing is to help our trainees leave here empowered, confident and ready for work, and to live a dignified life. The second is about helping people see that these guys are able to do something with their lives. Hopefully, the cafe helps people to see that.

What kind of training does Steps provide? What is the process of accepting a trainee?

We provide different vocational pathways. Of course, we have the coffee shop, so hospitality is one of them. We also do computer coding and office administration. Our team consists of a speech therapist, occupational therapist and psychologist. We work toward the common goals of creating awareness in society and advocating equality. Families can come for a visit. Then the child or their family members can join us for a couple days to see if we realistically can support them. If we can, they might join us right away. We accept trainees all year round. We are not stopping at the coffee shop, as we want to connect with different industries -- because not all of our trainees want to be baristas. We want them to get real internship or employment and give them choices for pursuing their dreams.

How has the feedback been?

It gives the parents hope that there's a future for their children beyond school, as they know their children are capable of doing more. It has been their dream to see their kids be a part of the community as well. Our expat customers love the concept. They want to be a part of this project that allows them to give back. Disability of any kind is stigmatised in Thai society. People don't talk about it and they don't see it in daily life, so we wish Thais would come here more. Maybe they are unsure what to expect because it's not visible to them in their daily life. But in general, people have been very supportive.

What kind of future plans do you have for Steps?

Ideally, we'll run the coffee shop as a social enterprise, and the training centre as a foundation (which Steps is in the process of) so we can employ our trainees and their salaries can be funded. We also hope to open a few branches and become a model of inclusivity. We can invite employers to see what an inclusive workplace look likes and give them the lessons we learn from having typical staff and our trainees working alongside one another.

How can businesses help?

By law, Thai employers should hire one person with a disability for every hundred, but they can send money to the Fund for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities if they don't want to. So companies opt to pay, as they are not trained to have people with disabilities in the workplace. I would like to ask them to take the risk -- work with us to see the benefits of employing people with disabilities. It can be challenging, but you'll get incredibly loyal employees. Once we're set up as a foundation, businesses can do CRS programmes with us or give us funding.

Do you have any messages for those interested in visiting Steps with Theera?

Our food is health-focused but diverse, so there should be something for everyone whether you're a meat-eater, vegetarian or vegan. You can come and learn something about an area you know nothing about and get to know our trainees. You can make a difference by having a cup of coffee here.