Italian restaurant finds new way of looking at disability

Updated 26 February 2014

Italian restaurant finds new way of looking at disability

IT was another busy night for the staff with Down syndrome at the Girasoli restaurant in Rome, which serves up traditional pizza and pasta dishes along with a new way of looking at disability in the workplace.
The neon-signed restaurant was set up in a suburb southeast of the Italian capital by the parents of children with disabilities, and it functions just like any other eatery — except 13 of its 18 employees are handicapped.
“I love this room, monitoring it, making myself available, being in contact with people,” said Simone, a 24-year-old who after a paid internship of 600 hours now has a permanent contract with Girasoli (Sunflowers).
“And above all I just love being here!” he said.
When a group of women came in Simone deftly showed them to a table, clutching a few menus in his hand.
“We heard good things about it so we wanted to come,” said one woman, while her friend added: “Basically it’s a normal restaurant — except the waiters are nice!“
As he tucked into an amatriciana pasta dish, 64-year-old teacher Giuseppe said: “When you come here for the first time, you have certain expectations but you quickly realize that there is no need to have them!
The restaurant was set up in 2000 and is aimed at offering work to people with Down syndrome — a genetic disorder usually associated with physical growth delays and intellectual disability but many manage to complete university degrees and hold down jobs.
“My waiters do their job and do it very well,” said chief waiter Ugo Menghini, who is not handicapped, praising the efficiency and speed of his staff.
“If I was to set up my own business, I wouldn’t hesitate, I would hire people with Down syndrome.”
Like many businesses in Italy, the restaurant has been hit by the recession and was forced to shut for several months last year for restructuring and renovation.
It is now being run by Consorzio Sintesi, a social co-operative association which specializes in giving jobs to disabled people and also manages three call-centers for the Italian mobile phone operator Wind.
“The state pushes for assistance but we prefer professional training. Everything here is self-financed with no subsidies from the state,” Enzo Rimicci, the head of the association, told AFP.
“Every employee here manages to find their place based on their skills,” Rimicci said, explaining for example how one staffer, Marco, was too shy to work with customers but proved to be “a real machine” in the kitchen.

“Seen close up, no one is normal.” he said, repeating an old Roman proverb that he likes.
The restaurant’s training is rigorous and out of the 13 employees with Down syndrome, nine are still interns.
When Girasoli is closed in the morning, another team comes in to make cookies and cakes for the evening customers.
Anna, a 22-year-old waitress, came in even on her night off to have dinner with her parents.
“For us, for her it’s a great victory,” said her father, Carlo, tearing up as he described his daughter’s transformation since she started work.
“Our daughter has gained autonomy. When she comes home from work, she is happy, proud of what she’s done,” he said, adding that Anna had also made progress “in how she relates to other people, in her language.”
A further sign of the restaurant’s success is that another one is in the works.
A new one is expected to open soon in Palermo in Sicily and Rimicci said there were even plans to turn the idea into a franchise and create many more outlets.


What makes dogs so special? Science says love

Updated 20 February 2020

What makes dogs so special? Science says love

  • Canine science has enjoyed a resurgence in the past two decades, much of it extolling dogs’ smarts
  • Although dogs have an innate predisposition for affection, it requires early life nurturing to take effect

WASHINGTON: The idea that animals can experience love was once anathema to the psychologists who studied them, seen as a case of putting sentimentality before scientific rigor.
But a new book argues that, when it comes to dogs, the word is necessary to understanding what has made the relationship between humans and our best friends one of the most significant interspecies partnerships in history.
Clive Wynne, founder the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, makes the case in “Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You.”
The animal psychologist, 59, began studying dogs in the early 2000s, and, like his peers, believed that to ascribe complex emotions to them was to commit the sin of anthropomorphism — until he was swayed by a body evidence that was growing too big to ignore.
“I think there comes a point when it’s worth being skeptical of your skepticism,” the Englishman said.
Canine science has enjoyed a resurgence in the past two decades, much of it extolling dogs’ smarts.
Titles like “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare have advanced the idea that dogs have an innate and exceptional intelligence.
Wynne, however plays spoilsport, arguing that Fido is just not that brilliant.
Pigeons can identify different kinds of objects in 2D images; dolphins have shown they understand grammar; honeybees signal the location of food sources to each other through dance; all feats that no dogs have ever been known to accomplish.
Even wolves, dogs’ ancestor species known for their ferocity and lack of interest in people, have shown the ability to follow human cues — including, in a recent Swedish study, by playing fetch.
Wynne proposes a paradigm shift, synthesizing cross-disciplinary research to posit that it is dogs’ “hypersociability” or “extreme gregariousness” that sets them apart.
One of the most striking advances comes from studies regarding oxytocin, a brain chemical that cements emotional bonds between people, but which is, according to new evidence, also responsible for interspecies relationships between dogs and humans.
Recent research led by Takefumi Kikusui at Japan’s Azabu University has shown that levels of the chemical spike when humans and their dogs gaze into each other’s eyes, mirroring an effect observed between mothers and babies.
In genetics, UCLA geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt made a surprising discovery in 2009: Dogs have a mutation in the gene responsible for Williams syndrome in humans — a condition characterized by intellectual limitations and exceptional gregariousness.
“The essential thing about dogs, as for people with Williams syndrome, is a desire to form close connections, to have warm personal relationships — to love and be loved,” writes Wynne.
Numerous insights have also been gleaned through new behavior tests — many devised by Wynne himself and easy to replicate at home with the help of treats and cups.
One involved researchers using a rope to pull open the front door of a dog’s home and placing a bowl of food at an equal distance to its owner, finding that the animals overwhelmingly went to their human first.
Magnetic resonance imaging has drilled down on the neuroscience, showing that dogs’ brains respond to praise as much or even more than food.
But although dogs have an innate predisposition for affection, it requires early life nurturing to take effect.
Nor is the love affair exclusive to humans: A farmer who raised pups among a penguin colony on a tiny Australian island was able to save the birds from marauding foxes, in an experiment that was the basis for a 2015 film.
For Wynne, the next frontiers of dog science may come through genetics, which will help unravel the mysterious process by which domestication took place at least 14,000 years ago.
Wynne is an advocate for the trash heap theory, which holds that the precursors to ancient dogs congregated around human dumping grounds, slowly ingratiating themselves with people before the enduring partnership we know today was established through joint hunting expeditions.
It’s far less romantic than the popular notion of hunters who captured wolf pups and then trained them, which Wynne derides as a “completely unsupportable point of view” given the ferocity of adult wolves who would turn on their human counterparts.
New advances in the sequencing of ancient DNA will allow scientists to discover when the crucial mutation to the gene that controls Williams syndrome occurred.
Wynne guesses this happened 8,000 — 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, when humans began regularly hunting with dogs.
What makes these findings important, beyond advancing science, is their implications for dogs’ welfare, he argues.
That means rejecting brutal, pain-based training methods like choke collars based on debunked understandings of “dominance” popularized by celebrity trainers who demand dog owners become “pack leaders.”
“All your dog wants is for you to show them the way,” says Wynne, through compassionate leadership and positive reinforcement.
It also means carving out time to meet their social needs instead of leaving them isolated for most of the day.
“Our dogs give us so much, and in return they don’t ask for much,” he says.
“You don’t need to be buying all these fancy expensive toys and treats and goodness knows what that are available.
“They just need our company; they need to be with people.”