Do too many of us underestimate those with learning difficulties?

Nathan Hill prepares to serve his first customers in his new community cafe.
Nathan Hill prepares to serve his first customers in his new community cafe.
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Tracy Hill tells Sarah Freeman about how her son defied the odds to open his own cafe.

Nathan Hill’s ambitions aren’t particularly grand. He’s 20 years old and eventually he’d like to be able to move out of the family home in Sheffield and into his own place. For a while now he’s also wanted a job that gives him a sense of self-worth and allows him to give something back to his local community.

It doesn’t sound like much to ask, but Nathan has learning difficulties and has problems with both his sight and his hearing. He’s also been diagnosed with epilepsy and like countless others in a similar position the opportunities to better himself seemed to dry up as soon as he left formal education.

“Ever since he was little, Nathan has always been someone who gets bored easily,” says his mother Tracy, who works as a nurse. “He likes being active, but we quickly realised that we were going to struggle to find him what you’d call proper work.

“Traditionally the model of employment for those with learning disabilities has been piecework in factories. I’m sure that suits some people, but it wasn’t what we wanted for Nathan, we felt he had just so much more to give.”

Which is why the family have decided to go it alone, opening a cafe which will be run, at least in part, by Nathan, who will also use it as an outlet to sell his handmade crafts and cards. The premises, on a busy parade of shops on Stannington Road, used to belong to a hairdressers. Tracy, along with husband Craig, have spent much of the summer transforming it into a bright cafe space, which they hope will be as much benefit to the older people who live nearby as it will be to their son.

“Of course our priority is Nathan, but one of the reasons we first thought about the cafe was because there is a real lack of facilities in this part of Sheffield for older people just to meet up and have a chat,” says Tracy. “It is a business and it will have to pay its way, but for everyone involved it’s much more than that.”

Along with his carer, Nathan will make the various cakes which will be on sale in Nathan’s Crafts and Tearoom - he chose the name and designed the sign - and he’ll also help serve the drinks and take the money. For Tracy and Craig, seeing their middle son start his own business is something they could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

While Nathan had attended a school dedicated for those with special needs, he lacked confidence and for a while they did worry that he might never find the independence he so clearly craved.

The couple credit Henshaws College in Harrogate with many of the achievements he’s made in the last few years.

“I’ll be honest, at first I wasn’t sure going there was the right thing for Nathan,” admits Tracy. “Because it was such a long way from home, he couldn’t go there and back in a day. It meant that he had to board and that was a big wrench for me. However, whatever initial doubts I had they were quickly allayed. Honestly, it was the best thing we could ever have done.

“The college’s way of teaching is so different from anywhere else. Honestly, he went there a boy and came out a man.”

Nathan attended Henshaws for three years and it was there that he found the confidence and the skills which have now led to him opening his own cafe.

“They gave him self-belief, which he just hadn’t before and I think his experience there also gave us confidence in his abilities.” says Tracy. “We’d always felt that Nathan had so much to offer, but sometimes when your are trying to access support it can feel like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall.”

Part of Henshaws’ philosophy is to ensure their students leave as independent as possible, which why much of Nathan’s first year at the college was spent learning basic life skills.

“To a greater or lesser extent, he can now look after himself,” says Tracy. “They started by teaching him how to make a sandwich and by the end of that first year he was making lasagne. That was such a huge achievement and from there he went onto learn about the hospitality industry.

“Everything they do at Henshaws is geared around the real world. So yes, they learn about maths, but it’s in terms of writing a shopping list and working out how much money you need to go to the shops, things that will really benefit them in the future.

“Of course I worry about what will happen to Nathan in the long term, but not as much as I did before he went to Henshaws.”

The cafe opened this month and the family now that it’s likely to be a steep learning curve for all involved.

“Nathan will always need extensive support, but this is a chance for him to give something back and that’s really important,” says Tracy. “It’s early days, but we are hoping to hold knit and natter sessions to give some of the elderly people a reason to leave their own four walls.