Why you should care
Deaf waiters and restaurateurs at an increasing number of silent cafés are bringing their world to people through food.
On a weekday evening at 1000 & 1 Signes, a Moroccan café on the Rue de Charonne in Paris, France, every walk-in follows the same pattern. They enter, in pairs or small groups, ask for a table and take a step back when they realize the waiter can’t hear them. It’s a process expertly navigated by Sid Nouar, 1000 & 1 Signes’ waiter and founder: With a few gestures and a swiftly maneuvered menu, he communicates not just the restaurant’s unusual nature — the waiter and cooks are all deaf, and patrons order by pointing, signing or writing their selections on a whiteboard — but also that everyone is welcome. This is a place to eat, yes, but it’s also a place to learn.
Since the 2011 opening of 1000 & 1 Signes, the first deaf-owned café in France, at least four other deaf-owned restaurants have followed. And France isn’t alone: Since 2016, more than a dozen such establishments have opened in Zagreb, Croatia; Cologne, Germany; London, U.K.; Delhi, India; Cape Town, South Africa; Bangkok, Thailand; and Bogotá, Colombia. Even Starbucks has opened its first deaf-focused café, in Malaysia, and is planning another for the U.S. this fall. Unlike past initiatives — often led by charitable organizations — that focused on giving deaf people more space in society, restaurants like 1000 & 1 Signes also emphasize teaching people with hearing about deaf culture and sign language. Patrons can leave the cafés with, at the very least, familiarity with a little sign language. Best-case scenario: They lose some preconceptions about how deaf people function in society.
“One of the goals of my restaurant is that hearing French people discover our world,” writes Nouar, deftly answering questions between taking orders, pouring wine and communicating with his three chefs. The son of an Algerian restaurateur, he turned to the cuisine of his mother’s native Morocco as his way of sharing deaf culture, because food, as he puts it, is “more fun.” Diners learn letters in French sign language via menu pictographs, ordering plate A, B, C and so on, or simply pointing. Nouar estimates that 90 percent of his customers are hearing.
Deafness isn’t a problem. The misconceptions of society are the problem.
Frederike Höfermann, manager, Sign It
Cologne-based Sign It, which arranges pop-up sign language events in cafés, began as a student project aimed at increasing the interaction of deaf people and those who can hear. Inspired by Signs, a Toronto restaurant that opened in 2014 but has since closed, Sign It’s program is geared toward increasing understanding of deafness and providing more opportunities for deaf people who want to work in the food sector. After a successful event in May 2016, the group behind the café began hosting regular pop-ups for about 100 guests at a time; in February, it turned into an independent business.
“Some people think when you hire a deaf person, communication will not be possible,” explains Sign It’s manager, Frederike Höfermann, who is not deaf. But for Germany’s 80,000-strong deaf community, “deafness isn’t a problem,” she says. “The misconceptions of society are the problem.”
Sign It events often include a dedicated educational portion — a crash course in basic sign language, along with specially printed menu cards to help guests who don’t know sign language to order. Höfermann’s next goal is to bring Sign It to more cities.
Not all such cafés are so convivial, warns Annelies Kusters, an assistant professor at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University and co-editor of It’s a Small World: International Deaf Spaces and Encounters. “It’s not a simple matter of deaf versus hearing, but different kinds of work environments,” she explains.
Some cafés put sign language front and center as a selling point and exploit stereotypes about the exoticism of sign language, she says, while others — often those frequented by deaf patrons — don’t broadcast their use of sign language. In India, Kusters points out, incentives to hire people with disabilities have led to deaf workers being hired en masse in low-wage food service jobs but rarely moving up the ladder.
And a meal at a café won’t educate the general public about issues of importance to the deaf community, like limited access to sign language education or the growing prevalence of cochlear implants — hearing aid technology that some worry will decimate deaf culture and reduce deafness to a disability. Nouar says it’s possible that within a generation, many children in the deaf community won’t learn sign language anymore.
Establishments like 1000 & 1 Signes are, in a small way, attempting to fight back, to educate. But, Nouar says, to make a real difference, “you’d need a lot, a lot, a lot of restaurants.” Little by little, though, the world might be headed for just that.