BRUNEI-MUARA – The SMARTER Brunei Autism Centre for Adults (BACA) on Monday officially opened the country’s first bistro and café staffed by young adults with autism.

Launched on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Sg Hanching restaurant — which sells nasi katok, small baked goods and coffee made from beans sourced from ASEAN countries — is part of a wider effort to provide job training for adults with autism so they will be equipped to enter the job market.

SMARTER’s president, Malai Hj Abdullah Malai Hj Othman, who is also father to an autistic son, said all parents hope for their children to be productive members of society.

“Unfortunately, with today’s competitive job market and high unemployment rate, it is getting more challenging and it is near impossible to find them a job,” he said.

According to statistics from the Department of Community Development, only 56 people with disabilities — out of the 9,282 registered with the government — have been able to secure full-time employment.

The SMARTER Brunei Bistro & Cafe is located at the Brunei Autism Centre for Adults (BACA) in Kg Sg Hanching. Photo: Rasidah HAB/The Scoop

The BACA centre currently has 35 students aged between 12 and 34, with 20 needing high support and 15 students considered verbal and needing low support.

“According to these labels, only 15 have the potential to gain employment in the open job market and I am sure none of them would be able to get it,” he said, adding that with appropriate support and assistive technology, all individuals with autism can be employable.

Equal opportunity in employment

To this end, SMARTER has also put in place an employment programme for its adult students, divided into four categories: apprenticeship, sheltered employment, supported employment and open employment.

The range of duties and responsibilities for each category differ.

Individuals grouped under open employment need minimal supervision and can work in all areas of the café and bistro; while students grouped under supported employment need more visual support and structure, but will still perform front of house and kitchen duties.

Students grouped under sheltered employment perform tasks such as labelling and packaging paper bags, and recycling materials such as plastic bottles to be repurposed into cup carriers and cookie containers. The scope of their daily tasks are not target-oriented, and students are sheltered from any kind of work-related stress.

At the restaurant, 17 students are in supported employment; three in sheltered employment and 15 undergoing apprenticeship.

Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, Dato Hj Aminuddin Ihsan (L), SMARTER president Malai Hj Abdullah (C) and BLNG’s legal manager, Hj Mohd Husini (R) during the launch of SMARTER’s Bistro & Cafe in Kg Sg Hanching on December 3, 2018. Photo: Rasidah HAB/The Scoop

Building a sustainable social enterprise

The SMARTER bistro and café was built with a grant from local energy firm, Brunei LNG, and specialises in serving coffee from ASEAN countries, including beans sourced from Labi, Belait.

The bistro will serve food items such as nasi katok, sandwiches and Shepard’s pie, along side buns and biscuits made at SMARTER’s Washington Bakery, which was set up in 2014 with a grant from the US Embassy.

Seventeen students will work in two-hour shifts to man the restaurant, supervised by SMARTER therapists.

Malai Hj Abdullah urged the government to support social enterprises, and not treat them as typical business entities. He expressed hope that policies would be made to make it easier for NGOs to run businesses to help sustain their operations.

The SMARTER bistro & cafe is open daily from 10am to 4pm, but is closed on Fridays and Sundays. It is located in Kg Sungai Hanching, Jalan Muara, just after Spg 485, and next to Mamih Restaurant.