Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Tiffany Fixter Of Brewability On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have a Disability
An Interview With Eric Pines
No one else will care as much as you do. You have to work hard every day because, frankly, no one else will do it for you. Don’t think you can start a business and hand it off to someone else while you disappear on a cruise. You need to be there, put in the time, and put in the elbow grease. If you model your expectations, others will follow.
As we all know, over the past several years there has been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany Fixter.
Inclusivity isn’t just an HR-backed buzzword. It’s a strategic, business decision that fosters a broader customer base and bigger employee pool. (And, yes, it feels good, too.) Building a business that truly accommodates employees and customers of all abilities requires significant thought and a hearty dose of elbow grease. Few people know the ins and outs of integrating people with disabilities into a business, better than Brewability owner Tiffany Fixter.
A special education teacher-turned-entrepreneur, Fixter launched Brewability, a Colorado brewery and pizzeria staffed primarily by adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), in 2016. Over the past six years, she’s been on the front lines of the inclusivity and accessibility movement. We had the pleasure of speaking with her about her experience and picked her brain about how leaders across industries can better accommodate customers and employees with disabilities.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
I grew up with a Nebraska-rooted balance of hard work and commitment to community service. My parents — both entrepreneurs — and I volunteered together at camps, children’s museums, and Kiwanis outreach programs, and I continued volunteering with autistic adults through college. I later got a master’s degree from the University of Kansas in autism spectrum disorders. After teaching special education for 11 years in Kansas City, I moved to Denver to be closer to family. When I took a job at an adult day program for individuals with disabilities, I was struck by how excluded from society they were. So, I wanted to find a way to connect people with disabilities to the community and to help empower them as adults. And what’s more adult than beer?
Brewability, our more inclusive answer to the trendy Denver craft brew scene, opened in 2016 and initially employed seven adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We then opened a sister establishment, Pizzability, in 2018. A year later, we married the two businesses, beer and pizza, and moved them together under one roof to Englewood, Colorado. I/DD adults now make up the bulk of Brewability’s employees, with 25-and-counting bartenders, servers, brewers, chefs, and support staff. Our customers are people of all abilities, so we work hard to find better ways to make everyone feel comfortable and included.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Passion. Perseverance. Patience.
You need passion to ride out the highs and lows of a challenging endeavor, whatever it is. For a lot of entrepreneurs their business is essentially a passion project. And, for me, this passion project has turned into my whole life. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night. I’m a special ed teacher, so working with people with disabilities has been my focus for a long time. But you have to be able to sustain that passion. I think seeing my employees’ growth and witnessing the impact this restaurant has on my customers feeds that passion. Every day, someone comes into the brewery and cries happy tears because they feel welcome, comfortable and included. You can’t beat that.
Perseverance is where the rubber meets the road. For us, it’s been up and down ever since we opened, given challenges like Covid and a struggling economy. Plus, we’ve had obstacles that come with being the first to try a controversial model. Before I even opened the doors, I had bomb threats and death threats. People just did not like the idea of putting alcohol and people with disabilities together. Nobody had done it before. So, we’ve had some societal pushback and we’ve had run-of-the-mill challenges that come with running a brewery and pizzeria, like everything breaking all the time, which throws off your balance sheet. You’re doing ok and then you get beat down. That’s common with small business owners. But, if I were to close Brewability, I’m not sure others would step up to fill the void and be inclusive. That’s a lot of incentive to persevere.
You really need patience every day to get through the small challenges as well as the big ones. In our business, the customers and employees require extra patience and understanding. In the service industry, or really any industry, you’re often dealing with demanding people. When I get frustrated, I try to remember that I never know what people are going through or if they’re just having a really bad day. It’s helpful to give a little grace and take a deep breath. And, like every small business, there are real, unavoidable setbacks. One minute, you’re getting ahead, and then, wham, the fridge breaks, and you’re out $10,000.
Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
Brewability’s biggest struggle has been proving that our concept can work by becoming established in the community. Our brewery’s first home was in an affordable, but decidedly imperfect location, a small garage in an off-the-beaten-path business park with no foot traffic, or traffic of any kind. We tried promotions and outreach to the community, but nothing worked. No one could find us. We then tried a different angle to driving business by opening a sister establishment designed to complement beer — a pizzeria — in a nearby, high-end neighborhood. Sadly, that neighborhood was hostile toward our employees, and our entire concept. They didn’t want to see people with disabilities in their neighborhood and claimed we were lowering their property values.
Finally, three years after we first opened our doors, we found a home for pizza and beer in an eclectic, welcoming neighborhood that happens to be close to both a school for the blind and a hospital that treats traumatic brain and spinal injuries. Finding that just-right fit has been a game-changer. We now have 25 employees with disabilities, a thriving business, and a supportive community.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Thanks to a grant we’re working on a range of accessibility projects, some of which are high tech and others are simpler, but important. Since music is a big part of the Brewabilty experience, we recently installed a vibrational dance floor. It allows people with hearing impairments — or customers who need some extra sensory input — to experience our live bands and house music through bone-conduction technology.
Other projects are a little less flashy, but really make a difference. Navigating a space can be tricky for our blind clientele and for folks in wheelchairs. To avoid tripping hazards and to keep furniture placement predictable, particularly for our visually impaired customers and staff, we’ve installed fixed bench seating outdoors. We’ve also flattened our thresholds, so wheelchairs can roll easily out to the patio. Creating a fully accessible family restroom is in the works as well. The plans include a height-adjustable changing table that holds up to 1,000 pounds and a fully adjustable sink — with canted mirrors — to accommodate the changing table as well as wheelchair access.
Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Inclusion has been a hot topic for a while. But how often do you walk into a bar or restaurant and truly see people with disabilities eating, drinking, and working? You don’t. I knew this stigma needed to change, and that’s the whole reason Brewability exists. The stories are endless. I have blind bartenders, who fill by weight and never mix up an order. I have autistic servers, who have come into their own simply by being employed and treated like grown-ups. And I have customers, who have never felt comfortable eating in a restaurant before — and, until recently, had never experienced music while dining or drinking out. Everyone has strengths. Everyone has weaknesses. We make accommodations so we can play to those strengths. The result: A successful business, empowered and happy employees, and loyal patrons.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?
A truly inclusive work culture means everyone has access and everyone is given the best tools to play a contributing role. If you take idealism out of the equation, inclusion is a smart business move. People who are neurodivergent make great employees. Like any business owner, I need to turn a profit. By tapping into my employees’ strengths, whether they have disabilities or not, I have been rewarded with a reliable team of loyal employees who show up and work hard. My turnover is minimal and my business is profitable. Not to mention I have a waiting list of people who would like to work at Brewability too.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?
We can do better than “reasonable” accommodations. If you ask people in wheelchairs about their ADA experiences accessing businesses and buildings, I guarantee they will tell you most places are simply inaccessible. Even Colorado’s State House failed to add a wheelchair lift for citizens addressing their representatives until this year. Honestly, the ADA’s requirements are lacking. A better approach would be Europe’s Universal Design (UD). The idea behind UD is that anyone, regardless of age, size, or ability, can safely and effectively use a space.
As a restaurant owner currently without a disability, I’ve found that it’s extremely important to get advice and direct feedback from the customers and staff who live with disabilities. If you don’t have anyone to ask, reach out to your local Autism Society, National Federation of the Blind chapter, OT/PT college programs or rehabilitation hospitals. A good rule of thumb for any business would be to consider every interaction and situation that could occur once a patron with a disability enters your location. Look at physical access points with a critical eye. Could an employee or patron maneuver a wheelchair without hitting obstacles, or could a blind person navigate the space? Think about people with autism, visual impairment, and folks who are aging. Maybe signage could be in larger print or in braille? Are there ways to accommodate people who get overwhelmed in crowded spaces? Perhaps, set aside quiet spaces or offer noise-canceling headphones. Think through as many ways as possible to make your business welcoming and comfortable for people of all abilities. Not all changes have to be huge, just thoughtful.
Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.
We are a restaurant. So, our best practices tie into anticipating patrons’ needs. For example, our beer menu is color-coded to match our tap handles to help patrons who may have difficulty reading, and we have braille, large-print, and picture-based menus for those who need them. We try to make the physical act of dining easier for everyone. Aside from offering weighted silverware, plate guards, and shirt protectors for adults and children, we’re working on a Gastrostomy tube-friendly menu. With our autistic friends in mind, we have a sensory area with a giant Lite Brite and marble wall — and we avoid loud hand-drying machines and flickering fluorescent lights. For our aging population, we try to ensure that signage is clear, and restroom door locks are simple and don’t require too much strength and dexterity.
Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?
Our new vibrational dance floor is the shiniest, and most fun, example of inclusion. Everyone loves it. Like bone-conduction headphones, the floor allows people with hearing difficulties to experience every instrument and every type of music. It’s amazing. Just imagine experiencing live music for the first time. The positive impact that kind of shared experience has on staff and customers is immeasurable. It has boosted morale and attracted new customers, which is a win-win. When the fully accessible bathroom is complete, the convenience factor of being able to maneuver and adjust changing tables and sinks will make a huge difference for our disabled customers and their caregivers.
This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?
No 1: No one else will care as much as you do. You have to work hard every day because, frankly, no one else will do it for you. Don’t think you can start a business and hand it off to someone else while you disappear on a cruise. You need to be there, put in the time, and put in the elbow grease. If you model your expectations, others will follow.
№2: Everything costs way more than you think it will. You can’t bail out on taxes, bills, or payroll. When you budget for something, triple what you think it will cost you.
№3: Connections matter. Engage with the community and build on customer relationships. Word of mouth is vital to growth. Not everyone will like you and that’s ok. You need to focus on the people that do support you. Don’t get hung up on the few that don’t.
№4: Location, location, location. Research your location and the surrounding community before you sign a lease. The cheapest option is not necessarily the best.
№5: Be intentional. You can make your business unique by threading your concept through every product you display, use, and promote. When we first opened, I just bought bulk supplies, without considering the source. Now, six years later, I’m much more focused on how everything ties into what we do. We have a slew of products that align with our goals. Our jams, candles, plates, and even toilet paper are made by people with disabilities. If you’re more intentional about your business, people will understand it better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
I’d like to buy into the Disney-esque, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” But, if we’re being honest, that’s BS. It’s a lot harder than just dreaming it. It’s a struggle. So, my quote would be, “If you’re going to spend your life doing something, you have to love it and it had better be meaningful.” Passion for what I do and sharing the positive moments with my employees and customers is what makes it all worthwhile.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d encourage people to consider hiring people who are different from them and listening to their customers who have disabilities. I’m an advocate for people with disabilities, but since I don’t have a disability myself, I want to make sure that I’m listening to others’ needs and wants and integrating that into my community space.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit us online at brew-ability.com, or, better yet, stop by for a beer.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.
While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.