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Rome eatery promotes mentally disabled staff

ROME--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.

“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 that 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.

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