Lewisham microbrewery serves up cool jobs for people with learning disabilities

"I've been volunteering for Lewisham Mencap for 15 years. Members there generally want either a relationship or a job, I can't help people on the relationship front, but I can do something to help them find a job."   Nick O'Shea, founder of Ignition Brewery.

Nick O'Shea set up his venture, Ignition Brewery, to give people with learning disabilities a job. His aim was to create something sustainable, something that could provide ten people reliable employment.

"I'm not a brewer, I'm an economist. I was driven to this by the margin, the ability to make money," he explains,"I thought about what will make the most money, what's cool, what's quite labour intensive. The obvious product was beer - it has good margins and as work it's quite repetitive with boiling things up and sticking labels on bottles."


One of the main reasons he chose brewing is that it provides employment in a sector that's seen as cool and fun. Through his volunteering at Mencap he'd been involved in running the Tuesday Club, which gets described as a lively disco - he wanted the opportunities he created to be equally exciting and meaningful.

"I'm bored of a lot of current interventions for people with learning disabilities - I don't think taking people around shopping centres is a good use of their time," he says, "I'd like to see people have the opportunity to do something cool. That's what keeps me going. We all need something cool in our lives. Everyone needs to feel like they're doing something different, a bit special, to make them happy."

Providing a sense of purpose

Nick is passionate about making sure that everyone has the same opportunities to have a meaningful life. He cites the fact that 93% of people with learning disabilities are unemployed and he wants to do something to start to change that. "I care about this because we're all the same," he explains, "Everyone needs love, a sense of purpose and a feeling of achievement." 

It's still early days for the venture - they've created a couple of small batches and have their first few members of staff. One of them started working at the brewery after losing a previous job.

"Before this I used to work in a post room until I was made redundant when the contracts changed. There was about 11 people and they reduced it to 6," he explained,"They interviewed me for one of the 6 positions, but I wasn't successful - I don't think I would've coped with it anyway, it wasn't my sort of thing."

"I can't stand being in a work environment where people shout," he says, explaining that the old work environment didn't suit him, "I used to get confused, and really nervous when people shout and talk too quickly. I get panicky. It doesn't help you think or feel safe." He hopes that working at Ignition Brewery will be better.

Beer in high places - minsiterial visit

Nick places a lot of his success in getting the right people on board to the power of networks, particularly through Twitter. "It has been a godsend. Brewers, labels, you name they've all found and helped us through Twitter." Raising the awareness not only of the social venture, but the issues it's tackling is high on Nick's agenda. We met him during a visit from Justin Tomlinson, the Minister for Disabled People.

"Visits like this are important. An important part of this venture is raising awareness of what people with learning disabilities can do." says Nick, "Having someone like the minister come along is really handy it helps people see that we're doing something that people want to be part of." 

Minister for Disabled People Justin Tomlinson added, "I was so impressed to see the team at Ignition brewery - too often disabled people find doors closed when looking for a job, but Ignition have really shown that businesses can and should find the advantage in what others so often deem a disadvantage. The employment rate of people with learning disabilities is currently about seven per cent and I think most people would agree that that is too low, and a waste of potential. And Ignition show that, given the chance, people with learning disabilities can be a huge asset in making a successful business." 

"I'd like to see more small businesses employing disabled people and becoming part of our Disability Confident campaign. Our campaign shows that not only are there huge business benefits that come from recruiting disabled people, but also that often only small, simple changes are needed to ensure disabled people can fulfil their potential in the workplace."


Becoming sustainable

Being an economist, not a brewer, one of Nick's biggest concerns has been ensuring that the beer is consistently produced to a high standard.

"We're taking people with no brewing experience, and trying to make beer that tastes consistently nice. There's no point us selling something that doesn't , people would rather give to charity," he says, "It takes a while to find the brewers which have both the skills to brew and also work with people with learning disabilities, which requires patience and the ability to keep calm." 

Nick's current challenge is to scale up the amount of bottles they produce in each batch - allowing him to go from employing three members of staff to ten.

"We did a lot of things almost the wrong way round, setting up companies, designing the brand, sorting out insurance, all before we had any beer," Nick explains, "Getting everything in a row takes time. People often ask why haven't you employed 10 people yet? It takes time, but we're getting there."

Word of their success has been spreading, BBC World Service featured a piece on Ignition Brewery, you can listen to the feature in full here.

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