“We must empower handicapped people!” – An Interview with Professor Wiriya Namsiripongpun
In December 2016, “Yimsoo Café” opened on Arun Amarin Road and it is run by the Universal Foundation for People with Disabilities. The Café employs mainly handicapped people, and became very popular among students, both Thai and foreign. The media reported about this café as a model of “hip” and successful business for the disabled. We had the great opportunity to talk with Arjan Wiriya Namsiripongpun, a chairman of the foundation, former senator, and law professor at the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University. We were talking about the origin of his idea, his vision for people with disabilities and rights for handicapped people. Yimsoo Café’s facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/YimsooCafe/
Q: Why did you name the Café “Yim Soo”? (Smile Fight Café)
It comes from the song “Yim Soo” or “Smiles”, which was produced by His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It was composed in order to encourage handicapped people to achieve what they want to, even if they have more difficulties than ordinary people. It’s such an important, and inspiring massage I think. That’s why we decided to use the name of the song for our café. It is sad, but some people have a bad attitude towards people with disabilities. They believe that handicapped people are a burden, and cannot contribute anything to society. But in my point of view, one should change the status of being a burden, and empower them instead to believe that they can achieve everything.
Q: What inspired you to open the café?
When I went to United States, I discovered that many people with disabilities there lead restaurants and coffee shops successfully. I was eager to try this model in Thailand. In my view, Thai people with disabilities should also have the possibility to lead a business and become successful and independent. A café could be a good business for a disabled person. It offers the opportunity for other things, like decorating the café. This is at the same time a good way to make the customer feel comfortable. They might like the atmosphere in the café, and take some photos to share them on social media. This is a good way to get other people’s attention to go to the coffee shop.
Q: Who did you employ and how do the employees communicate with each other?
We employ deaf people, and persons with down-syndrome, but also ordinary people. They communicate with each other using sign language. In case of any communication problems between the customer and the barista, our ordinary staff can help. Furthermore, there is the TTRS machine which provides real-time sign language translation services in the café, connecting to TTRS Center in the foundation. Customers and employees can use the machine to connect with a translator.
Q: How did the barista learn the work?
We hired an expert to teach us how to make coffee, and how to check its quality. We’re planning a free program to train disabled people in the coffee business, too. My vision is to make people confident to open own restaurants or cafés in the future. Moreover, there will be a program for teaching handicapped people for example how to plant mushrooms, and breed insect as a food. It’s not hard to learn, and could be a first step to make disabled people more independent. The most important thing is to raise awareness that they understand about their own potential, give them challenging work and empower them not to give up easily.
Q: How did your baristas like the job?
Normally, the world of deaf people is rather limited. They have their own language, and usually have difficulties to communicate with ordinary people. Therefore, deaf people tend to be around others with the same symptoms. The deaf persons we employ say that working here offers the opportunity to communicate with ordinary customers. They developed a new perspective, and become more confident to believe that they could be an entrepreneur in the future. We also plan to let customer order coffee with sign language. That could be a very interesting experience for the customer.
Q: What is in your view the challenge in this project?
Luckily, we have been supported financially by the government fund for disabled people. According to the law, any organization who does not hire disabled people, has to pay a fee to the fund. The fund is used to finance and support projects for handicapped people. Many people with disability live in Thailand, almost one million. There are also specific laws and rights to protect and support disabled people. I think the real challenge is about management and how to run the project successfully. We needed to think about a good strategy. We should not think too bureaucratic, but more creative and modern with our project. For example, we wanted our coffee shop to be decorated nicely, and create a warm atmosphere to make the customer feel comfortable.
Q: Do you have any plans of expanding your business?
Actually, businesses by disabled people enjoy certain benefits according to the law. These businesses for instance don’t need to pay rent if the business is run in governmental area. Therefore, it would be great, if we could open a café in a governmental area like at the Faculty of Law of Thammasat University. The foundation also wants to do some projects together with bigger professional businesses like C.P. or Thai Bev, because they have expertise with business management and they want to do more charity projects. But we are still considering different business models.
Q: What do you think about the situation of the disabled living in Thailand?
The situation develops continuously, but it could be better. In the past, people thought that the disabled were unable to work or even to live like ordinary people. But obviously, they are able to work, and to live and act like normal people. We have laws and rights which support the disabled. Many firms produce devices and technologies to simplify the everyday life of handicapped people. This gives us the chance to access more and more aspects of life. My smartphone offers many applications for disabled. I use them a lot to read and to connect with other people. It is very important to give this opportunity to everyone who is handicapped, in whatever way.
Q: What do you think about rights for the disabled in Thailand?
Even tough the constitution did not specify the right for disabled yet, our national laws are quite sufficient. How to realize these rights is, in my opinion, one key problem. We have enough funds from the government. But not many people support projects for handicapped people. We should arrange more projects to improve the right of the disabled. We have many unemployed disabled, and we should support and train them instead of leaving them behind. Moreover, there are some important bills that we support. For example the bill about education of disabled people. We should let disabled children study with normal children. It is important to think about how school could take care of disabled children. We also want experts to take care of handicapped children in school so we can live together in harmony.
After the interview, Prof. Wiriya kindly showed us the Kindergarten for disabled children, and the “Yimsoo-Gallery” which is also run by the foundation. The Gallery exhibits many artworks of disabled people, especially Mr. Tanong Kot-Chompu, a famous disabled artist who once exhibited his works in Switzerland. The Gallery aims to show the potential of the disabled people to the society.
The interview was conducted by Shavaorn Wongcom, Researcher at CPG.