Right beside the Tjarnarbíó theatre, you’ll find a café called GÆS. The brand new café sits by the pond and offers refuge from the ever-present Reykjavík rain (what the locals call “summer”). The coffee is good, the environment is great—but there are other things that set it apart from your run of the mill Reykjavík café.
From the outside, the building GÆS inhabits looks more like a continental inner city church than a café, wedged in between two other buildings, making the best use of the space available. Inside, you find that the café’s hall features one long table, and a few smaller ones instead of pews. A working piano rests where you’d expect a church organ, and the counter is located where one would imagine an altar. It may as well be an altar for the coffee hungry, as guests can queue up to receive holy refills of drip coffee. There is a side function room that could equally host prayer sessions or business meetings. And the roof is even a gable roof, with large windows to warm up café guests and churchgoers alike.
This, however, is where the church analogy ends. The furniture is eclectically gathered from multiple sources, and the walls are adorned with brilliantly coloured strips of fabric. The piano can be played by whoever wants to play, and the record player comes with a stack of vinyl for the customers’ perusing and playing pleasures.
Most importantly they have a very progressive equal opportunity policy that other local businesses really should take a hint from.
A dream come true
The café was the dream project of Steinunn Ása Þorvaldsdóttir, a place that employs people with disabilities and gives them a chance to engage in fruitful and rewarding activities on their own. GÆS translates as ‘goose,’ but it’s actually an acronym for “Get, Ætla, Skal” (“I Can, Will and Shall!”), which is the mentality Steinunn wants to promote with her staff and customers. Sitting down with Steinunn and three of her co-workers, Óli, María and Unnur, we talk about the adventure of starting a new café, and why it is important to have true equal opportunity workplaces.
All four agree there is a real lack of job opportunities for people with disabilities. “There is assisted employment,” Steinunn says, “but that only works for some people.” There are also protected workplaces, but people with disabilities do not have much autonomy there. Only a select few private workplaces will consider hiring disabled people. At GÆS, however, the five members of the board all have disabilities of one kind or another. “We also hire people without disabilities,” they assure me.
The group tells me that they find job market afraid of employing disabled people. We speculate whether they are afraid of giving people with disabilities too many responsibilities, or not knowing what jobs they are capable of performing. This, they tell me, is the root of the problem: people are not given a chance to prove themselves.
Not letting society disable you
Steinunn says she was so tired of letting others tell her what she could and couldn’t do, so she decided to start her own business. Her friends who were studying with her were thrilled to be a part of the idea, and after giving a presentation to the city council, the project got the green light. “The real question was ‘Can you do it?’” Steinunn says. “With the right help, yes I can. The number one thing to do is just to do it. And you have to follow your heart.”
After a six-week work placement at Kaffitár and numerous presentations for staff and members of the board, GÆS opened for business in June. They ran into a lot of hurdles with permits, and their lack of experience with various financial matters, but their biggest hurdle was a lack of cups. They asked online if people could spare any unused ones, and before they knew it they had two thousand cups of all shapes and sizes.
Outside of Iceland there are cafés where people with disabilities can work, but it is very rare for them to run the business. The group says that working on this project has filled them with confidence and positivity.
The group unanimously says the greatest issue affecting people with disabilities in Iceland is a society that disables them more so than their individual impairments. As Steinunn notes: “we are all very different, with different things to offer.”
Steinunn brings up the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Iceland signed the Convention in 2007, but as of yet has not ratified. Ratification requires Iceland to modify its legislation in ways that will benefit a whole range of people with disabilities, and among other things promote a more inclusive and diverse workforce.
Unnur points out another incentive for businesses to hire people with disabilities. “Often we will have assistants with us, who help us with our daily tasks. So by hiring us, companies actually get two people working for them for the price of one!” It is encouraging seeing such an idealistic café spring up in Reykjavík. Steinunn says the place is there to change the world and show people that it can be done. “It really is the café of opportunities,” she says.
GÆS is currently supported by the City of Reykjavík, which provides the space for the operation. The group tells me city council wants to get investors involved eventually, and phase out its support, but at the moment GÆS is out of the red and breaking even.
Whether or not investors get involved, GÆS will remain open this summer. The group isn’t sure what will happen after that, but they are thrilled to be running and working at the café. If you feel like trying a café with a different vibe, then head out to GÆS. We hear they even have delicious waffles on Saturdays.
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