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June 21, 2003

Thumbs up for sign-language cafe

From: BBC News, UK - Jun 21, 2003

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

Walking past the Cafe Signes on a leafy avenue on the Left Bank, there is little to suggest it is any different to other cafes in Paris. Until you take a closer look, that is.

The customers seem to be gesticulating a little more than usual - even taking into account the expressiveness of Gallic hand gestures.

And the waiters and waitresses are gesticulating back. Yet they are not arguing, and in fact, the cafe is really rather quiet compared with the usual noise levels of a busy Paris bistro at lunchtime.

Once you sit down, and are handed a menu, all is explained. This is France's first bistro where the deaf and the hearing can interact on an equal basis.

Most of the 45 staff are deaf, as are some of the customers, though by no means all.

Alphabet soup

Those who come here unable to read or understand sign language are given a quick tutorial: the menu contains pictures of all the main signs needed to communicate an order.

Interlock your fingers in the shape of a steeple, and you will get chips. An upwards circular motion with both hands, to denote fizz, will get you a glass of lemonade.

The menu also lists the whole of the French signing alphabet, a one-handed alphabet unlike Britain's two-handed sign alphabet.

Anyone still unable to order can always point or write it down, but most customers seem to enjoy the challenge, and the waiting staff are happy to teach anyone who wants to learn.

Valerie has worked at the cafe since it opened earlier this month.

She is profoundly deaf, but uses a mixture of lip-reading and sign language to take customers' orders.

She says she is enjoying the job, and that most people who come do try to express themselves in sign language even if they are not deaf.

She shows me how, when the order is ready, the chef simply buzzes a small pager on her belt which alerts her silently - in stark contrast to the usual loud shouts from Paris restaurant kitchens.

An equal footing

Although the cafe is open to everyone, it was set up with government backing and some business sponsorship to train people with hearing impediments for full-time jobs.

So far it is going well. The lunchtime I visit, only one table is empty, and so lively are the conversations that it is hard to tell who is deaf and who is not.

The "directrice" of the project, Martine Lejeau Perry, says customers with normal hearing quickly learn to sign, either by imitating the drawings on the charts or by making up their own signals.

"In France it can be very difficult for those with any disability," she says.

"People are not accepted as much, and there is less tolerance. Very often the deaf in France are patronised. The aim here at the Cafe Signes is to put people on an equal footing."


Francine Daude, who helps train staff at the cafe, nods in agreement. She can hear but also speaks fluently in sign language.

"I think this place does help create greater understanding," she says.

"Most deaf people and hearing people are actually afraid of each other, and suddenly the non-deaf who come here find themselves a little in the same situation as a deaf person.

"They have to learn a whole new way to communicate. It's good to have a link between the two, and the link is this cafe - a place where you can drink, eat and have a good time together and begin to discover that the person on the other side is not so different after all."

Pascal, one of the customers enjoying lunch at a table outside, says that his sign language is not very good, but it is improving.

He likes the cafe and comes here regularly.

"It's good because it's a step towards greater integration of those who can hear and those who can't. But the main reason I come here is because it's a good cafe."