26 Oct 2012

How a sweet shop is changing attitudes to disability

From bonbons to bullying, rhubarb and custard to rooting out prejudice. In the last of our A legacy to stand on? reports, Katie Razzall visits a sweet shop in Kettering run by disabled school kids.

My job is so often about bad news – and in the series of reports I’ve done recently on disability, much of it has been negative. Important issues on everything from hate crime to inaccessible transport need airing. But sometimes it’s heartening to find out something positive.

We’ve been to Kettering, Northamptonshire to meet a group of pupils with severe learning disabilities and their, frankly inspiring head teacher. Together they are running a sweet shop in the centre of town. The idea was to get the youngsters out of their special school, which is tucked away from view, and into the heart of the local community.

Debbie Withers, that head teacher, spotted an empty shop in Kettering three years ago and her vision was born. The students painted, cleaned and designed the place themselves. Debbie told me: “It was the perfect opportunity to let them solve problems so we asked them: ‘What do we need?’ It was several weeks before one of them said chairs were a good idea. Up to then, we all sat on the floor.”

We wanted to change people’s perceptions and enable our young people to take their rightful place in the local community. Head teacher Debbie Withers

Three years on, their business – a sweet shop – is in profit, selling 383 different kinds of confectionary out of old-fashioned jars and weighed out in front of the customer.

“We wanted to change people’s perceptions and enable our young people to take their rightful place in the local community,” Debbie Withers said.

Preparing for work

The youngsters do everything from shopfloor selling, to packaging, to accountancy. These are people who have difficulties coping with change because of their disabilities. Working in the shop, going out in to the local community to pay the shop’s profits in to the bank, or to buy their lunch at the bakers, gives them confidence and teaches them how to deal with situations that are changeable. It also prepares them for work.

For example, 17-year old Andrew Hughes does the accounting, or as he puts it: “Counting out money, taking it to the bank, they have cashiers.”

Read more in our special report: A legacy to stand on?

Thomas Cooke likes “serving customers” and Shannon Faulkner’s favourite sweet is “blue raspberry bonbons”. I asked Adam Benney whether he prefers working in the sweet shop to going to school – “sweet shop”, he replied.

Wonderfully, the reaction from customers has been positive.

“Only once have we had to ask someone to go. The majority are brilliant. Things can be very different for our youngsters, they can be frightened, they suffer bullying, hate crime. We are a safe place. Hopefully the more people learn about us, that our youngsters are people first, the opportunities for behaving negatively will lessen,” said Debbie Withers.

This is the only school in Britain with a business run by its disabled youngsters. It’s a model that could be replicated all over the country. Debbie Withers isn’t finished either. She’s about to sign a lease on the school’s next business venture: a hairdressers with a creche attached.