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Dining in a Deaf Restaurant

Ozy logo Ozy 6/18/2015 Neil Parmar
A person using sign language to communicate. © Getty A person using sign language to communicate.

On my proudest days, my 1-year-old claps or waves her tiny hands on cue. I’ve also tried teaching her some American Sign Language for the words “more” and “finished,” but here’s the thing: She isn’t deaf. Neither are any of the dozen or so kids whose parents I know who say signing has helped their little ones communicate instead of, say, lashing out with angry outbursts, frustrated we can’t understand what they’re trying to say.

Getting practice flexing my own fingers was just one reason I booked a table at SIGNS, an “upper casual” restaurant that opened in Toronto last summer. It claims to be the first in Canada to staff deaf hosts, servers, bartenders and kitchen help. (More than 60 percent of its 45 or so workers are deaf.) First you are talked through how to order from the menu — complete with images showing how to request chili-lime shrimp or miso salmon (around $21) — using a modified form of ASL. Then you’re introduced to a deaf waiter who patiently deciphers your order and verifies it with you on an iPad.

It’s a concept that allows you to interact with a community that you’d never have the opportunity to learn from.

Anjan Manikumar, SIGNS founder

Sure, some might see SIGNS as gimmicky, or maybe even like poorism. It’s not hard to see why. Able-bodied diners (myself included) have previously flocked to “high-concept dining” experiences like Dans le Noir, where guests are served by blind or visually impaired wait staff and eat in the dark. And there are other restaurants around the world that cater to deaf patrons or workers. At SIGNS, plenty of guests have visited, including deaf Canucks and tourists who are drawn to ASL-friendly places, such as Union Marketin Washington, D.C. What’s more, 80 percent of the restaurant’s guests can hear — and don’t actually know sign language.

But here’s the beautiful thing: “It’s a concept that allows you to interact with a community that you’d never have the opportunity to learn from,” says Anjan Manikumar, the restaurant’s founder. Indeed, he launched SIGNS after managing another eatery that had a regular customer who was deaf and who inspired him to learn some ASL. Manikumar also consulted with the Canadian Hearing Society and the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf, which says it helped with the hiring process and providing advice. Yet one ongoing “big challenge” is the hearing staff who don’t sign, which can lead to a “lot of miscommunication and misunderstandings,” says Christine Nelson, the Centre’s adult education manager.

The eight of us at my table didn’t notice that, however, as we wined on a decent though not extensive selection of vino and dined (I would recommend trying the green curry mussels and skipping the venison shepherd’s pie, but the restaurant recently revamped its menu). Overall, the evening fell short of perfect: One guest felt SIGNS needed to work on its service — “serving entrées before clearing appetizer plates was not the best” — while another observed that not everyone who requested glasses of water received them. “For a lot of our staff, this is their first full-time job,” explains Manikumar. “That’s the initial challenge we’ve faced, because we taught them everything from scratch.”

Fair enough. After all, some might even say it’s a little like learning a whole new language.

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