Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cafe in Britain employs visually impaired people as cooks

The intro to the story in The Daily Mail in the UK. In the picture, Mary King stuff potato skins with head chef Jo Miller and Paul Wellington in the Concept kitchen - the first and only of its kind in Britain.

Artfully flicking melted chocolate across a pile of cream-topped meringues, head chef Jo Miller puts the finishing touches to pudding.

It is mid-morning in the kitchen of the Concept Conference Centre, an unassuming office block in central Birmingham where various businesses and charities hire rooms for training days and seminars.

Soon, 25 or so delegates will file through for lunch. On the menu: oriental marinaded chicken, ratatouille, filled potato skins, winter coleslaw and, for those who have any room left, gooey brownies and those meringues.

Jo leans in close to inspect her handiwork.

'I can't really see what I'm doing,' she chuckles, adding a few more flicks, before arranging the splendid-looking little meringue towers on a dish.

She is not joking. Jo, 48, is registered blind - and so are the five other kitchen staff who are busily preparing lunch around her.

When I was invited to spend a day in the Concept kitchen - the first and only of its kind in Britain - the combination of sharp knives, naked flames, scalding pans of water and five blind cooks was an alarming prospect. But Jo relishes proving the sceptics wrong.

'At first, when people hear about "the kitchen with blind cooks", I'm sure they're expecting to be served a few curled-up sandwiches. But, honestly, people come back here time and again because the food is so good,' she says.

And the importance of such a project cannot be underestimated. Today more than a million individuals in Britain, about 2.5 per cent of the population, have a visual impairment that is not correctable. The vast majority are over 65, but 80,000 adults of working age and 25,000 children are affected.

It is depressing to learn then that 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted people of working age in the UK are unemployed, and 90 per cent of employers rank them as either 'difficult' or 'impossible to employ', according to UK charity Action for Blind People.

Every day, 100 more Britons begin to lose their sight. Macular degeneration, which affects light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye, glaucoma, which affects the optic nerve, and diabetes-related eye disease are the most common causes of visual impairment.

Sight problems are usually picked up during a routine eye test by an optometrist. The patient will then be referred to a relevant consultant ophthalmologist, depending on the type of eye disease suspected.

If sight loss is significant, the doctor may give the patient a Certificate of Visual Impairment. This allows the patient to be registered as blind or partially sighted, giving them access to benefits and tax relief. There are approximately 310,000 in the UK on the register.

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists estimates that only about 50 per cent of those who would qualify choose to take advantage. Research has shown that about 97 per cent of those registered blind have some residual vision - and this includes all the workers at Concept - although this varies widely from person to person, and over time, as many eye diseases are degenerative.

I can understand employers' reservations about taking them on, especially when it comes to working in a kitchen. Can it really be safe?

'Yes - as long as the environment is familiar and they have at least some sight,' says consultant ophthalmologist Winfried Amoaku, of the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust Queen's Medical Centre. 'We do use the word ''blind'', but the correct term is ''severe visual impairment''.

'It's rare to be totally blind. The majority of patients can see shades and differentiate shapes to varying extents. Some patients have no central vision, while others have no peripheral vision. This variety is why some blind people have guide dogs, some have white sticks and others don't need anything.'

Back at Concept, kitchen assistant Mary King is chopping peppers and trainee Kevin Johnson grates Parmesan. Everything is made from scratch, with fresh, locally sourced ingredients delivered daily.

'We can cater for around 90,' says Jo. No one rushes and there is no shouting. Jo uses a special magnifier, around 2in thick, to read settings on the oven, while all the chefs are helped by scales that talk.

Martin, the sous chef, chops things quickly but I prefer to take my time,' says Mary, 40, who lost all the sight in her left eye due to retinal detachment and has no rightside vision in her right eye thanks to internal bleeding. 'I never cut my fingers,' she adds.