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Liberty middle school cafe a 'game changer' for students with disabilities

Harness School Cafe at Discovery Middle School in Liberty
Posted at 4:00 AM, Dec 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-16 08:15:19-05

LIBERTY, Mo. — When the bell rings Friday morning, Discovery Middle School students will see new faces serving them coffee behind the counter.

Instead of greeting or delivering drinks to classrooms, students with disabilities will be standing upright with their hands free for the first time.

It's all part of the "Harness School Cafe," a school coffee shop equipped with harnesses to allow students with wheelchairs and walkers to move around freely within the space.

"Ultimately, this is about inclusion," said Dr. Kendra Gagnon, a professor of physical therapy with Baylor University. "It's not about environments for special kids. It's about making a world that works for everyone."

The cafe uses metal frames to assist children in moving around without locking them in a track. The harness can be adjusted for each student, providing more support for students who need it and less support as they get stronger.

Students like Tyler Glossip understand firsthand the benefits of the harness. The seventh-grader was born 23 weeks and five days premature, causing him to develop cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. He spends his days using a walker until he gets into the school cafe. With the help of his teacher, he enjoys strapping himself in and getting to work.

On Friday, Tyler will be handling his classmates' drinks while adding the flavoring and creamer to coffees. Before the harness, he was limited to being a greeter at the door.

"He works hard every day to do what he does, and to see that he can actually do something he can't normally do is almost emotional," said Lori Glossip, Tyler's grandmother. "It's going to be amazing for these children."

"It's really fun because I can talk to them and I've made friends with them and it's just really fun to work there," said Catie Flournoy, a sixth-grade student who works in the cafe.

Although Flournoy can work and walk without assistance, she understands the importance of the "Harness School Cafe" because of her own journey. Flournoy also has cerebral palsy and could not always walk. She started out with an adaptive bike to help build her strength and then switched to using braces. Today, she holds a black belt in Taekwondo.

"It's really cool because some kids don't switch classes and for them to be included and working with the coffee shop is really cool because honestly, you would never think of anyone working on a harness and enjoying it," Flournoy said.

The "Harness School Cafe" was funded by Variety KC Children's Charity. Leaders say this unique concept is about teaching the children skills that will stick with them for life.

"It actually allows students to start to learn job skills, life skills and probably most importantly, social skills," Gagnon said. "Being upright and hands-free and eye level with a peer, especially when you're in middle school, is a game changer."

The school will hold a grand opening at 8 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 13.