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August 26, 2003

Cafe for the deaf reverses handicap

From: New Zealand Herald, New Zealand - Aug 26, 2003

PARIS - At the Cafe Signes in Paris, the staff wear beaming smiles, the service is flawless and there is no yelling from the kitchen.

But if you want something to eat or drink, you are going to have to work out how to mime it - most of the staff are deaf.

Armed with a leaflet showing sign language for cafe terms and using a sign alphabet printed on placemats, clients at the four-month-old cafe smack their palms together and wave clumsy circles in the air.

The ever-patient serving staff are adept at interpreting the gawky gestures of their ham-fisted customers, and for a rare moment they enjoy the upper hand.

"Things are back to front here - people who can't master sign language feel handicapped while the deaf are quite in their element," said Claudie Maynier, one of the four "hearing staff" who support the deaf or hearing-impaired workers.

What seemed like a huge gamble on paper has proved to be a roaring success, attracting curious locals as well as the hard of hearing from Paris and around the world.

"Doing something unprecedented is always worrying, but it is working amazingly well," said Daniel Seguret, spokesman for the Entraide Universitaire association, which runs work projects for the handicapped in the 14th arrondissement of Paris.

"We have ordinary regulars who come in, say 'hello' in sign language, sit down next to a deaf person and quite happily have a go at communicating.

"It's changing people's perception of the handicap and making a huge difference to the deaf staff."

Watching 27-year-old Bruce breezily polishing glasses and pulling pints, you would never guess he had a worry in the world. Grinning broadly, he jokes with the staff or strikes up an animated sign conversation with a deaf customer at the bar.

"I love working here. I feel like I exist. I can't lip read, but I can still communicate. I give people post-it notes to write down what they want, or they point to the menu," Bruce said, using Maynier to translate.

Most of the staff, who have hand signals spelling "welcome" printed on the back of their T-shirts, used to spend their days shut off from the public in special workshops for the handicapped, making things like jewellery or packaging.

Valerie, 36, darts merrily towards the kitchen, alerted by a vibrating beeper on her belt that hot food is ready for collecting.

"It's much more fun here. It's hard work but I meet people and it's interesting," Valerie said in near-perfect French. She began to speak out loud only since taking the new job.

The cafe, opened in Europe's "Year for the Handicapped", has drawn hearing-impaired people from as far as Japan and Mexico.

Local workers stream in at lunchtime and switch naturally into mime mode.

Passers-by also trickle in, not realising there is anything out of the ordinary about the eatery, with its chrome sidewalk tables, trendy rust-coloured awning and halogen-lit interior.

Discreet signs warn newcomers that the waiters cannot hear them.

So attractive is this chance to mingle in a normal environment - not easy in a country where almost all companies prefer to pay a fine than employ handicapped people - that many other deaf people in the area covet positions at the cafe.

"Sometimes I yell in the kitchen when things get busy or go wrong. Sometimes I sing too. But they can't hear me either way," says Fabrice Cia, who uses sign language to communicate with his cooks.

A concern for the organisers is that the cafe may remain a one-off gimmick rather than encouraging other projects.

Seguret said: "For me, success will come when people don't find this odd or unusual."

©Copyright 2003, New Zealand Herald