Turning tables on disability

People with mental illness and disability — or as politically correct speech has it, the intellectually challenged — suffer an enormous amount of discrimination and ­isolation.

Broader society treats them with impatience and is often defensive, awkward, 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” (more than one million South Africans receive disability grants). But that doesn’t change the need for a sense of self-worth, to enjoy meaningful work, have some independence and the feeling that one belongs to society.

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

Keeping up tradition
Director Merle Furman took me on a tour. Upstairs and downstairs there are various workrooms. One holds several magnificent old wooden looms that are still in use and ­produce quality work. As I watched, a soft baby blanket was being made according to a pattern designed by its ­operator.

There are ­sewing rooms and a carpentry shop for making doll houses. One fellow collects stamps from envelopes to sell to philatelist dealers in aid of the centre. I noticed a page of six-cent Ugandan stamps with the head of George V on them. All the manufactured items are for sale 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, and twice a day a dear called ­Margaret Catzel plays the piano.

The waiters greet you and introduce themselves.

Because several struggle with writing, the menu is accompanied by a pen and form on which you fill in your own order. I found the staff interaction relaxed and was gratified by the thought of how the tables are turned here — some of the waiters would probably be less enthusiastically ­welcomed if they went as patrons to certain ­restaurants in the city. Destigmatisation and breeding familiarity with mental disability are important functions of this kind of establishment.

The kitchen is kosher and all items are milchig — in practice it’s ­vegetarian, although there are smoked-salmon bagels and tuna ­lasagna on the menu. 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 and baked potatoes, and then there are soups, quiches and pastas of the day.

The thick traditional butternut broth I tried was quite fortifying.

A unique approach

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

Coffee Time is also open on occasional Sundays (they advertise in the newspaper) and available 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 is essential

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Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman is a political novelist Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak. He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and in his Friday column, Once Bitten food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: www.meersman.co.za

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