Brewability Lab’s Tiffany Fixter and Tanner Schneller on Creating Jobs for Adults with Special Needs

Last Call by | May 2017 | Issue #124
Art by Nathan Arizona

Tiffany Fixter, a special education teacher with a master’s degree from the University of Kansas in autism spectrum disorders, moved to Denver to run a day program for adults with special needs. But when she saw her clients with developmental disorders engaging in time-filler crafts and activities that weren’t enriching their lives, she grew frustrated. So in October 2016, Fixter opened Brewability Lab with head brewer Tanner Schneller to create job opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities, including autism. Accommodations like visual checklists, color-coded and brailed taps and menus, and a picture-based point-of-sale system support Brewability’s four employees in their work—and help special needs customers enjoy the brewery, too.

What makes brewing an appealing industry to create opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities?
Fixter: It was the idea of bringing the community together. I think that’s what any great brewery is—a meeting space for people. It’s a really social environment, and oftentimes they’re excluded. So for some of our employees, this is their only opportunity to interact with typical adults besides their parents. The brewing community in Denver has been extremely supportive.

What have been some of the challenges of running the brewery?
Schneller: I don’t have a background in special education or dealing with adults with disabilities, so part of the challenge for me is learning more patience and finding out how to get our guys involved in the brewing process in ways that are conducive to their ability. … My assistant, Devon, is getting pretty efficient at cleaning fermentors, so I’m trying to get him into the knocking-out process, going from the whirlpool to the fermentor, pitching yeast, and controlling temperature on the back end of the heat exchanger. Once he starts getting more proficient with these things, I’ll slowly work toward the beginning of the [brewing] process with him.

How has the job affected your employees with disabilities?
Fixter: I think they have a purpose now. They’re happy. At the end of most shifts, they say, “I have friends!” I see their pride grow every day. When they come to work, they’re excited, and they’re starting to know the customers’ names. They almost seem like different people to me. Their parents seem thrilled, too.

What strengths do your employees with disabilities bring to the job?
Fixter: Definitely their positive attitude. If someone’s having a bad day and they come in for a beer, they are leaving with a smile on their face. You cannot be in a bad mood at our brewery.

What do you hope to contribute to the brewing community?
Fixter: I really feel like there could be something like this in every community.

Schneller: We offer really good beer. Also, all of our guys who have been written off by society are going to learn good job skills in this industry that they can actually take to other breweries in the future.

What have been some standout moments for you?
Fixter: The moment I realized Patrick [who was pretty much nonverbal] is now saying full sentences and initiating conversations with people. He truly connects with our customers. … We have become a safe place for all people, regardless of ability or sexual orientation. It’s really crazy that everyone can come together in a garage in the middle of nowhere for an idea. It’s mind-blowing, really.