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Signs, Canada's first restaurant staffed mostly by deaf servers, closes for good

The Yonge and Wellesley restaurant closed last week.

Signs Restaurant at Yonge and Wellesley closed on Dec. 12.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Signs Restaurant at Yonge and Wellesley closed on Dec. 12.

Canada’s first restaurant staffed mostly by deaf servers has shut its doors.

Signs Restaurant opened to much fanfare in July 2014, and was hailed for its innovative approach to employing the deaf, who often have trouble finding jobs.

The Yonge and Wellesley small business also invited customers to use sign language to order, giving them a crash course with illustrations on how to sign menu items.

Owner Anjan Manikumar said he simply ran out of funds to run the restaurant, which closed Dec. 12.

“We wanted to somehow save the concept and unfortunately we were not able to,” he said.

“It’s a good learning experience I think, I just feel bad for the staff because a lot of them felt extremely extremely disappointed.”

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The restaurant employed about 40 people, mostly deaf, said Manikumar, who learned American Sign Language to communicate with customers while working as a manager at Boston Pizza in Markham.

Part of the issue was upfront costs of training staff “from scratch.” Many had never worked in the service industry before, he said.

Manikumar said he tried applying for government grants to support the employment for the deaf the restaurant was providing, but was unsuccessful.

While the restaurant had some success in drawing tourists, he said many walk-ins would turn around and walk out when they realized the staff was deaf, he said.

According to Statistics Canada, the employment rate of working age adults with a hearing disability is 47.9 per cent, which is much lower than for adults without a disability (73.6 per cent).

Brian McKenzie, director, of training and employment services with the Canadian Hearing Society, which provides services to help people with hearing disabilities find jobs, called the closure of Signs “unfortunate.”

“It does mean a loss of opportunity for deaf people to be employed,” he said.

People with hearing disabilities can face many barriers to employment, but often they can be solved with simple accommodations if a company is willing to take the time, McKenzie, said.

“If anybody is looking for support in finding employment or regrouping through a transition as the restaurant closes, we’re here,” he added.

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