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SAN LORENZO, Paraguay – How do you order something to eat in a café where no one can hear?
With sign language and patience.
Since March, Sord@s Café, the first café in the country and in South America that’s run entirely by the deaf, has become a place for those with hearing disabilities to share a meal, a snack or a chat in sign language.
The café was created by the Paraguayan Deaf People’s Association (APS), with support from the Ministry of Justice and Labor (MJT) and several NGOs.
The café, which has a staff of five – all of whom are deaf – is located in San Lorenzo, a suburb about 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) from downtown Asunción.
“At the Association we thought of creating a business, since in Paraguay there are limitations on deaf people’s entering the labor market,” said APS President Werner Martínez, who is deaf. “We attended a course on micro-businesses, offered by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. There, we came up with ideas for businesses and that is how Sord@s Café came about.”
Sord@s Café has two objectives: eradicate the barriers of discrimination that face the deaf and offer employment to those who can’t hear.
About 10,000 deaf reside in Paraguay, according to the country’s 2002 Census.
“There is a lot of discrimination in Paraguay against deaf people,” Martínez said in sign language, interpreted by Laura Riveros, secretary general and APS’s official interpreter. “It is important [that Paraguayans] understand that people with disabilities need to be treated equitably and have equal opportunities.”
Martínez added through his interpreter: “We are not sick people, we are people with rights and we have families like every hearing person.”
But Sord@s Café welcomes those who don’t have a hearing disability to enjoy the restaurant’s pizza, sandwiches, hamburgers, juices and rolls, among other items.
Customers can point to a visual menu so the deaf staff can complete their orders. Sord@s Café also has a monitor that loops a video of an interpreter showing how to ask for coffee, a slice of pizza or a hamburger in sign language.
“We want to teach those who are not deaf about our language,” said Augusto Alonso, vice president of APS. “Our placemats have the hand signs of the alphabet on them so we can share our language with hearing people.”
Alonso said Sord@s Café is accommodating to those who are not hearing impaired.
“Some hearing people come to the Café and talk to us to make their orders,” he said. “Then, we have to explain to them that we are deaf. Everything is possible with patience. We can communicate well with them, so there are no difficulties in that sense.”
Robert Servián, 22, is in charge of the kitchen at Sord@s Café.
“I learned to cook here,” he said through Riveros, his interpreter. “Sometimes it’s complicated to communicate with hearing clients.”
But Servián said that through patience, communication between the customers and the staff is achieved.
“If they talk to me, I tell them to speak more slowly and I explain that I am deaf. In that case, we show them the menu with the hand signs, with the images of the products and their prices, and that is a great help in improving communication.”
“If a client prefers to write down what he wants to eat, he can do that, too,” added Christián Quiñónez, a 23-year-old who is in charge of supplies and accounting at Sord@s Café.
Sord@s Café’s profits are not as high as management expected, but the restaurant is proving the deaf can run a small business.
“Sord@s Café makes an average of $250,000 guaraníes (US$64) profit per week,” Quiñónez said through an interpreter. “The issue is that we have lots of bills, especially in terms of buying supplies. We also have payments to make, such as rent, electricity, water.”
Quiñónez said he is trying to find ways to cut costs to improve the bottom line.
“I am trying to save by finding less expensive supplies to try to increase profits,” he said. “I do price comparisons because each guaraní counts in order to make money, and we want to show that we are able to support this venture.”
But Alonso said providing employment to five deaf workers is invaluable.
“When you go to involve a deaf person in the labor market, many believe that he or she will not know how to read, write or do anything, which is why we’re always denied employment,” Alonso said. “The café proves otherwise.”