Each day, staff at the Dream Workshop cafe on Chengshan Road in Shanghai record the number of customers they serve on a blackboard behind the cashier’s counter.

On Monday, a month after the cafe opened, that number hit 4,000. That might not be big for some businesses, but it was a milestone for the Dream Workshop staff, most of whom have a disability.

“It’s my first job. I am happy to work here,” said Wan Chupeng, who has Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder. His manual dexterity is poor, but as the cleaner of the shop, Wan easily remembers that certain cloths must be used in certain places.

Wan and six colleagues – all aged about 19 – are graduates of the Shanghai Pudong New Area Special School. Dream Workshop employees are people with conditions such as Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism.

The cafe, launched by the school, is the first of its kind in Shanghai and the latest in a network across China that offers work and support to people with learning disabilities.

According to census data taken in 2010, 12 million Chinese citizens had learning disabilities. Industry insiders said supply of sheltered employment programmes was short, and the survival of such projects was a big concern.

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The Shanghai municipal government launched a charity called Sunshine Home to help people with learning disabilities integrate into society, but not all those in need got a place, Lou said.

The school created a vocational training programme at the cafe. “We do not want our efforts spent on those children to be in vain. We hope more of our students can go out into society,” she said.

In 2007, China launched a quota system that required employers to reserve at least 1.5 per cent of their jobs for the disabled.

However, today 9.48 million – 11 per cent – of the estimated 85 million disabled population are in work, according to a recent report from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF).

There are no official figures for the jobless among Chinese with learning disabilities. It is believed they struggle the hardest to find work.

“Although sheltered workshops can only cover a small proportion of those in need, they play an exemplary role, showing people that they are able to work,” said Ivy Zhang, secretary general of the Shenzhen Association for Families with Persons with Intellectual Disabilities.

Depending on their health and their education, those with learning disabilities can often handle work in the manufacturing sector and service industries, such as cleaning jobs in hotels, she said.

Zhu Jiawei, who is in charge of a vocational rehabilitation project called Wisdom Tree under Yanglingzi School in Hangzhou, eastern Zhejiang province, said cafes were a popular training choice because there were opportunities for interaction with workmates and customers and the work was straightforward.

“A cafe gets busy, and the work, like baking and coffee-making, is generally routine and there are clear procedures to follow,” he said.

Yanglingzi School opened its first Wisdom Tree cafe in 2014. Two more followed, and the three branches employ eight people with learning disabilities.

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“Some of our students performed really well at school, but when they left and got work, they were sent back for one reason or another. When they lost the opportunity to socialise, they got worse. It’s really a pity, so we thought of starting this project,” Zhu said.

Pan Xiufen, a college teacher who specialises in integrated education and a volunteer at Dream Workshop, said there was a lot the able-bodied could learn from people with learning disabilities.

“For example, they are often hard-working, strong-willed, and have good concentration, which many able-bodied kids do not have,” Pan said.

Dream Workshop was looking for sustainability through a partnership with a local company that would bring greater commercial sensibility to its business, Lou said. The school’s responsibility was to help the youths take to the world of work.

“As the CDPF officials who visited us the other day said, we cannot survive without earnings. We do not want to be a flash in the pan. We need to be sustainable to help more youths get jobs,” she said.

In Hangzhou, Wisdom Tree was “still in the trial stage” and reported “a small surplus” last year, Zhu said.

“The government and the school pay for the rent and water and power supplies, and we got subsidies in the beginning, but we need to cover costs of labour and materials on our own,” he said.

Zhu said some customers had voiced concerns about food hygiene and avoided salads and sandwiches which may have included uncooked ingredients. At Wisdom Tree, a glass wall was built at the food preparation area to let customers watch.

“Besides coffee and other drinks, we serve snacks that are baked instantly, so there is less of a safety issue,” Zhou said.

In Chengdu, southwestern Sichuan province, Zhang Yuan owns a business called Happy Birth Day, which coaches about a dozen people with learning disabilities and has helped 500 people plan careers since it opened in 2015.

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Zhang said that most employment programmes for people with learning difficulties needed government support or public donations, but those could not be relied on for the long term.

“So, we should pursue commercial benefits at the same time, think about how to make the products more competitive, instead of complaining about being poor or begging for help,” she said.

Thanks to a partnership with Benevolence Family, a local NGO, and the government, Happy Birth Day has expanded from coffee service to selling handicrafts and paintings created by people with learning difficulties.

“In fact, only a tiny portion of these people are able to do such a complicated job as making coffee, and some customers are worried that food and drinks prepared by them can be unclean,” Zhang said.

“The existence of platforms like ours ensures the abilities of the intellectually disabled are not wasted,” she said. “They allow them to learn how to survive after their parents pass away, to buy things they need, not by begging or other ways.

“The question is how to make the most of each part in the process, including the government, disabled people, their families, NGO workers, and the general public, and get them to work together,” she said.

Creating jobs for those who have the skills should be the responsibility of the government and business, Zhang said.

“Corporate employers should be better incentivised with, for example, support from the government to cover some of their costs.

“I know some local governments have big funds for disabled people, but that money is not efficiently used, and is left idle instead,” she said.