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What It's Like to Work at a Restaurant Staffed by Deaf People

Extra mirrors, brighter lights, and a "cheat book" for customers. We asked the bartender at Signs, Canada's first restaurant where the entire staff is deaf, what it's like to work there.

by Josh Hume
May 7 2015, 2:00pm

By now, you've probably heard of restaurants that are staffed by blind servers and ask customers to eat in the dark. But there are also restaurants staffed by people in the deaf community. Although the absence of hearing has fewer gastronomic implications than being without sight—we do eat with our eyes, after all—a restaurant devoted to the use of American Sign Language (ASL) is a huge deal for the servers who work there.

This week in Vancouver, DeaFined becomes the second such place in Canada. The first one, Signs, opened last July in Toronto. It's an otherwise typical dining experience, except that the servers are deaf and customers communicate with them using sign language. Menus give instructions on how to ask for each item using ASL and each table has a "cheat book" for common requests—including gluten intolerance, of course.

With the help of two interpreters, we sat down with bartender Amanda Grundy at Signs to ask about what it's like to work in an improbable profession.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Amanda. Is this your first restaurant job? Amanda Grundy: Yes, it is.

Would you be able to work at another restaurant? I don't know if I would have the opportunity to work in another restaurant as a server or bartender just because of the communication. I could probably be hired to work in the back, maybe as a dishwasher or support staff, but definitely not front-of-house. Do you get a lot of deaf customers here at Signs? Typically we do, yes. But we also do have a quite a large number of hearing customers as well. Do you encounter a lot of other forms of sign language other than ASL? Yes, we do. Actually, last week I just met a customer who came from Japan, so of course they know Japanese sign language. So it was interesting, us both being deaf individuals, but there being a communication barrier because we sign different languages. But that happens often in a place like this.

Amanda Gundy. Photo by the author.

Amanda Gundy. Photo by the author.

How different are the languages? The languages are completely different, absolutely. There might be some signs that look similar because they're more iconic in nature, but other than that the languages are completely separate with their own grammatical and syntactical structures.

Is the kitchen staff deaf as well? The dishwashers are all deaf. The chef and the line cooks are a mix of deaf and hearing.

How do you communicate with the hearing cooks? Some of the hearing staff are learning sign language, which makes it a bit easier, but for those that do not sign we often communicate through the iPad that we order from. We also have the expeditor who works from the kitchen. They're hearing and fluent in signs, so that helps facilitate the communication clearly through the deaf staff and the back-of-house.

What do you do when you have trouble deciphering a question or request from a customer that has difficulty communicating in ASL? When a customer comes in, they are first greeted by an ASL host, who is hearing, and are brought to their table. The ASL host then interprets for the deaf server about five basic signs to help them order from the menu. We also have a "cheat book" on every table that has different varieties of signs. If the guest is struggling to communicate what they want or need, then the deaf server will ask the ASL host to come back and reinterpret again what the issue is at the table to help solve what's going on.

Do you ever resort to pen and paper? No, we use the iPad. There's a note app, so we can type back and forth with the customer that way.

What would you do with a customer who is frustrated with ASL and just wants to say his order? Generally, people will just point then. I can see if they're not interested in interacting with me and getting the full, unique experience that Signs can provide. They'll just grab the book and point to what they want.

But most people are interested in engaging with sign language? Oh, absolutely. That's why people are coming here. They want the experience. They want to try the food, but they also want to learn the language as well and be part of the deaf community. So often customers come, and then they come back again because they want to learn even more signs.

READ MORE: Blind Eating the Blind by Dining in the Dark

So you want them to walk away with an educational experience as much as a culinary one? Yes, definitely. That's the goal. You really want them to enjoy the experience; learning something new, learning a language, and enjoying the food. They're seeing deaf culture live in front of their eyes. They see the aspects of deaf culture that I think are often overlooked with the hearing majority. For example, the deaf community has specific cultural norms in terms of getting each other's attention: we bang on a table, we wave, we stomp our feet. For somebody who has had no exposure to that, seeing it for the first time is a really rewarding experience.

Are there any aspects of the restaurant's design or layout that enables staff to communicate better? Yeah, [the kitchen and dining room] is well-lit and open-concept so that we can see each other, because this is how we're communicating. We can't listen to each other when we're in the dark.

Are there any other unique features of this restaurant designed for deaf employees? In the back, we also have mirror set up so that you can actually see people coming and going because you wouldn't be able to hear the door opening behind you. It's a really good environment. Sometimes you have the mirrors, but if you're not paying attention, you can still bump into anybody.

Thanks for speaking with me, Amanda!