If you think that being a waiter isn't a very significant job, think again. Simon Beckett explains

Most of us would readily concede that there are some jobs which can change your life. Astronaut, say, or surgeon. Even being a politician must have its moments. However, "waiter" probably wouldn't rate very highly on a person's list of life-altering vocations. The human interface between kitchen and customer might be necessary when it comes to putting food on a restaurant table but, with all due respect to waiters, it doesn't spring to mind as a potentially Damascene experience.

Yet, sometimes, it can be. The Locanda dei Girasoli in Rome is one such example. Society's ingrained prejudice against those with disabilities has meant that while most restaurants now cater for disabled customers, the same attitude rarely extends to their employment policies. But the restaurant is famous in the city not just for its pizzas but for the fact that its waiters all have Down's syndrome.

The co-operative opened four years ago, but looked set to close earlier this year, Roman diners apparently being uncomfortable with the idea. However, following intervention by the city hall and new investors, it has begun to flourish. For the waiters there's the benefit of connecting with different people, and acceptance into a society that is all too often ready to reject them. For their customers, it's a chance to overturn prejudices, and the possibility of a hug that has nothing to do with the size of the tip.

The Locanda may be rather unusual in only employing waiters with a disability, but it's by no means unique. Dans le Noir will open in London later this autumn, and features customers eating in complete darkness in order to heighten the sensory experience. However, instead of waiters wearing night-vision goggles, the serving staff - called guides - will be blind.

The first Dans le Noir opened last year in Paris, and that was such a success that another Dans le Noir is also scheduled to open this October in Belgium. The brainchild of French businessmen Edouard de Broglie and Etienne Boisrond, it was set up in partnership with the Association Paul Guinot, a non-profit organisation for the blind. As well as forcing diners to rely on other senses, it also neatly inverts the usual relationship between the blind and the sighted. "For once, I don't feel assisted. Now I'm the one who helps people," says 31-year-old Celine Dos Santos, a waitress at the Paris Dans le Noir. Blind since birth, she feels that working as a waiter is a way for her to be more integrated in society. "I meet many people, I have colleagues I get on well with, and a routine of going to work. And I like the fact that people are completely amazed that a blind person can move around in the dark like that all their life."

It isn't only the disabled who can find themselves excluded from society. Pollsmoor Prison, near Cape Town, is where Nelson Mandela spent part of his 27-years imprisonment. It's also the location for a novel restaurant whose staff are prisoners. From 8am until 2.30pm, 15 inmates exchange their prison outfits for blue trousers, white shirts and red waistcoats, to serve members of the public who have to book days in advance and apply for a permit to enter the 50-cover restaurant.

"We also do functions. Three-course meals, birthday parties, weddings," says Raj Nadas, * a prison warder who doubles as the restaurant manager. The prisoners who work here are all low-category offenders, serving time for crimes such as car theft and house-breaking. They are each paid a monthly gratuity of 10 rand (about 85p), but that increases by 30 rand for every three months they remain. "Whoever is interested, we give them a chance," Nadas says. "Most of them have no experience when it comes to the kitchen, therefore we offer training: chef's courses, waitering courses. So when they go out, it's easier for them to find a job."

Closer to home, the Skylight Café in East London has a similar agenda. Run by the homeless charity Crisis, the café opened last year to provide training and resources for up to four homeless trainees, ultimately looking to help them find paid employment back in society.

"The point is for us to get them to where they're ready to hold down a job," says Skylight manager Louise Stoker. "For some people that's six weeks, for some it's six months. We don't ask them to leave until they've got one. When they start, I always keep them in the kitchen to build their confidence. You can visibly see the difference. If you put some people on the till, they wouldn't make eye contact with the customers, because they've become very insular from living on the streets. But, by the time they leave, they're laughing and joking with the regulars. They're much more confident."

Not all those who arrive at Skylight choose to stay the course but, thus far, the café's record is an impressive one. Since January of this year, all 12 trainees who have worked here have gone on to find jobs elsewhere, mostly in other cafés such as Pret a Manger. "It has been a totally life-changing experience," says 26-year-old Ben Davy, who has been at the Skylight for five months now. Before working here, the former photographic graduate spent two years living on the streets, battling with depression and addiction problems. As well as serving the customers, he also helps prepare the food and handle deliveries, and he is now planning a career in the social sector. Yet, prior to working at Skylight, Davy had never even had a job before, and the difference it has made to his life has been profound. "Since I've been here I've managed to get off my medicine and don't need the support groups I used to. I have a purpose and responsibility, and a structure to my life. I've learnt to work in a team, and deal with the general public. Which has been great, because now I can actually see a future."

It's refreshing - and a little humbling - to be reminded that being a waiter involves more than carrying plates. For people like Davy, it can be a lifeline back into a society that might otherwise shut them out.

"Without having the café and that opportunity they gave me, I wouldn't like to imagine where I'd be now," he admits. "I"ve realised more what life's about." Which is something not many people can say, waiters or not.