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Vancouver's first 'deaf restaurant' teaches diners to order in sign language

A new Vancouver restaurant is encouraging diners to order with their hands.

DeaFined, opening May 7 on West 4th Avenue near Vine Street in Kitsilano, is staffed entirely by deaf and hard of hearing servers. Among the first of its kind in Canada, the Eastern Mediterranean restaurant asks customers to order food and drinks using American Sign Language.

For those who don’t know how to sign, there’s no need to fret.

 A sign language

A sign language "cheat sheet" is available for customers to use at DeaFined, a restaurant in Kitsilano that hires only deaf and hard of hearing people. (Thandi Fletcher/Metro)

“There’s a cheat sheet on the table with the menu,” said owner Moe Alameddine. “The server comes up to take the order, and the fun part starts there.”

In the mood for steak? Grab the fleshy part of your left hand with the index finger and thumb of your right hand, and wiggle a bit as if getting a good grip on the meat. How about salad? Use both hands and picture yourself tossing some greens.

When customers arrive at the DeaFined, a hearing host or hostess greets them and acts as an interpreter while they introduce the server.

Alameddine came up with the idea after starting his popular blind-dining restaurant O.Noir in Montreal and Toronto and Dark Table in Vancouver, where guests dine in complete darkness while they are served by visually impaired staff. The concept aims to give customers a taste, albeit briefly, of what it’s like to be blind.

Although the business helped provide jobs for blind people, Alameddine said he realized a need for employment opportunities to benefit the deaf community.

According to 2006 data from Statistics Canada, people with “hearing limitations” represent an unemployment rate of 10.4 per cent. Of the group, over half say their condition affects their ability to look for work. For those who are completely deaf, the number is believed to be higher. A 1998 survey from the Canadian Association for the Deaf found that 37.5 per cent of deaf Canadians are unemployed.

 A board inside DeaFined, a Vancouver restaurant staffed entirely of deaf and hard of hearing people, displays the American manual sign language alphabet.

A board inside DeaFined, a Vancouver restaurant staffed entirely of deaf and hard of hearing people, displays the American manual sign language alphabet.

Only two other North American establishments— Signs Restaurant in Toronto, which hires mostly deaf servers, and Mozzeria, a pizza restaurant in San Francisco, which has a deaf owner and staff— have a focus on hiring deaf staff.

Alameddine worked with Vancouver Community College’s Job Readiness Program for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the YWCA Work BC Employment Services and the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to recruit staff.

Susan Masters, executive director of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said she hopes the restaurant inspires other business owners to look into any underlying prejudices within their own hiring practices.

“The reason the unemployment figures are so abysmal is because people have not been willing to make the accommodation,” she said. “This is an industry that deaf people have not been able to get to the front of the house.”

While the restaurant offers an opportunity to educate non-deaf people about the culture and sign language, Masters said it also offers the deaf community a relaxing dining atmosphere.

“The typical experience for a deaf person is hold your breath, point at the menu and hope the server gets the order right,” she said. “Now they’ll go into the restaurant and it’s their turf.”

Since he came up with the concept, Alameddine said he has started learning sign language to communicate with his staff.

“It’s a completely new community and culture to me,” he said. “It’s a challenge. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun. Every day I learn something new.”

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