The Albergo Etico in northern Italy is a hotel with a difference: sprouting from the desire of a group of friends to help one young man find a placement, the hotel is staffed by people with Down syndrome training in all facets of the hospitality business.
The hotel is owned and operated by the Download Albergo Etico Project, an integrated life skills and employment project for people with Down syndrome that is garnering interest internationally, including in Australia.
“We aim to make people with Down syndrome the real protagonists of their working life,” project chair Alex Toselli says. “I believe people with disabilities must have the same rights to dream, to make money, to drive a car,” he told a recent seminar at UTS Business School.
As well as being paid industry-standard wages, hotel staff receive integrated life skills and vocational training, gaining a level of independence they can carry throughout their lives and careers.
Toselli is now working with interested groups in Australia, Argentina, Finland, Norway and Slovakia.
Consultant and former executive director of Down Syndrome NSW Tracylee Arestides experienced Hotel Etico first-hand last year and recently established Project Etico Australia. She is working closely with Toselli with the goal of setting up a hotel here.
“We’ve had a tremendous response across the sector to the whole working, living, learning concept embodied by Project Etico,” says Arestides, a UTS alumna.
The success of Albergo Etico is due largely to the positive attitudes of, and relationships formed with, the business, hospitality and tourism industries, as well as the local community, Toselli told the “Ospitalità or HospitABLE” seminar at UTS.
People with disabilities must have the same rights to dream, to make money, to drive a car
However, continued innovation in the hospitality, education and tourism sectors is needed to ensure sustainable and inclusive employment becomes widespread globally, he says.
Australia ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries when it comes to employment of people with a disability, says Professor Simon Darcy of UTS Business School. Among those of working age, more than half are either officially registered as unemployed or counted as not participating in the labour force.
Discrimination in employment based on disability is a significant issue, as identified in a recent analysis of Australian Human Rights Commission complaints, he says.
Further, due to the history of “sheltered workshops” in Australia, underpayment remains a big problem, along with the amount of time spent looking for work, which is significantly higher among people with disabilities than those without.
“But we know there are innovative ways to connect training, employment and inclusive approaches to organisational practice and we want to show that people with a disability can make long-term and sustainable contributions to Australia economically and socially,” Professor Darcy says.
Australian businesses that do employ people with a disability report greater productivity and higher staff morale.
That’s clearly an opportunity for the hospitality industry, where high staff turnover compromises customer service and sustainability, the seminar heard.
Social enterprise Livvi’s Café is another group trying to change the employment statistics for people with a disability.
As a social enterprise, Livvi’s Café, an offshoot of the not-for-profit organisation Touched By Olivia, operates under a business model where profits are generated but with the aim of funding social good.
The initial idea of the café chain was to create safe and inclusive play spaces for children with disabilities, founded on the principle that “every child has a right to play”. But the goals soon expanded to include providing employment opportunities for young people with disabilities.
Chief Executive Bec Ho says the move into cafés two years ago was well received by the community – people were more than happy to wait a little longer for a coffee – and the project is improving the wellbeing and confidence of its young employees.
Aviva Redmond, who works as a service provider with service provider LifeStart and has a close family member with a disability, is excited to see projects like Download Albergo Etico and Livvi’s Café.
“It’s really fantastic to see truly inclusive workplaces – workplaces that actually just treat people with disabilities like everyone else and pay them a fair wage,” she says.
Louise Geaghan from Willoughby Council says there’s still a lot of work to be done in Australia but the National Disability Insurance Scheme means Australia is on the cusp of a new world of choice and opportunity.
“As we move away from people with disabilities being in institutions or staying with their family for all of their lives, then we all start to think about them having those needs just like all of us do – and I think that’s really good,” she says.