LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Chip Bryers and Andrew Collins recently opened a Rita's Italian Ice and frozen custard store in Lake Buena Vista, and they're using it to set a positive example for other employers.
"I've actually had someone tell me, 'Until you figure out how to talk, we can't work with you,'" Bryers, who has autism, said.
He said those were hurtful words but that didn't stop the 25-year-old from pushing forward as an entrepreneur.
"People need to look past, like, what they see on the surface," Bryers said.
Three years ago, while he and Collins were working as Disney cast members, Bryers pitched an idea to Collins about starting their own business.
"We kind of realized that what we wanted was to kind of be our own business owners, and Chip here actually saw an advertisement on Facebook from the area developer," Collins said.
They reached that goal almost two months ago when they opened the doors to their franchise.
For both men, it wasn't just about becoming business owners. They also wanted to offer a workplace for people who have autism or some type of special condition.
Currently, over half of their workers are diagnosed with autism.
"Having a job gives you a chance at anything in life," Bryers said. "You need to work to make money to have a family. Autistic people want all those same things. They're just not necessarily great at expressing it."
Collins said their accomplishment has a personal connection. His brother is also on the autism spectrum.
"I just know he's going to have all these extra challenges going forward in life and I feel like people should have the ability to be able to work wherever they want and have a successful life and career," Collins said.
He and Bryers are already getting results. One employee was completely nonverbal when he was hired but, in a matter of weeks, he was talking to guests and offering suggestions on flavors.
"Social skills don't come naturally and I understand that," Bryers said. "I work with them on these things because I've been where they are."
Bryers said he hopes other employers learn to value employees with special needs.
"There are so many wonderful businesses around here that do hire autistic people, and I am very grateful to all of them, however, if I could send a message to them, I would say: You should stop viewing it as, like, your charity, community service project and actually start looking at them as an asset and try to view them as valuable employees and not your community outreach program."