Variety KC Harness Café’s at Liberty Middle Schools.

For the first time ever, Body Weight Support technology has been moved out of the therapy gym and into the classroom. The “Harness School” Cafe is an innovative concept that allows middle school students who use wheelchairs and walkers a chance to stand upright with their hands free to fully participate in their school coffee shop. This allows them to practice job skills such as taking orders and serving coffee, integrate real-world math skills by operating a cash register, and socialize with their peers at eye level for the first time ever, all while gaining the therapeutic benefits of standing and moving on their own.

For an investment of $10,000 each, two Variety KC “Harness Cafés” have been built inside middle schools in the Liberty, Missouri, school district. The cafés sell and serve coffee, hot chocolate, and snacks while providing a life skills environment for students as part of the “Cooking to Learn” curriculum.  Each year, over 20 students with special needs will work in the skills class alongside 80 non-disabled peers. But before the implementation of these life-changing “Harness Cafes,” students with physical disabilities weren’t able to take full advantage of the learning, movement, and social opportunities working in the cafes.

As one student said, “Before the harness, greeter was the only job I could have. My wheelchair was below the counter, so I couldn’t make drinks or use the cash register. When I strap into the harness, it frees my hands and since it runs on a track – I can move all around the cafe. Now I can work just like my friends.

Dr. Kendra Gagnon, the physical therapist who helped Variety KC plan and design the cafés, says the system does more than facilitate movement for students who usually rely on assistive devices like wheelchairs or walkers for mobility. It gives students a chance to experience getting out of their wheelchairs and interacting with “customers” alongside their peers – upright, hands-free, and eye level.   In an upright position, eye-to-eye with their peers, all students learn what’s possible – disabilities disappear and new relationships are engaged and formed.

Money raised in the cafés makes the investment sustainable.

The most exciting outcome. As a supplier to the café’s, Danny O’Neill, the owner of the local Roasterie coffee company, attended the grand openings. Seeing the skills training enabled by the harness systems, O’Neill was inspired to go back to his own businesses to see where he could implement the system and provide jobs for local graduates who would benefit from this system.

Gagnon says, “My hope is that one day this system will be like a uniform. The employee would wake up, get dressed and put on the vest that they will later attach to the harness system at work. It will be seamless, needing no additional help from a co-worker or supervisor. How empowering and life-changing is that?”