Silence is Golden at New Pop-up Café Where Deaf and Hard‑of-Hearing Diners Sign for Service

  • Silent café set up to employ, train, and serve people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Customers order food and drinks using sign language symbols in menu
  • Initiative is one of the winners of the 2017 Ford College Community Challenge

Want a coffee? Then draw the letter “C” in the air with the index finger of your right hand, and then twist it towards your mouth twice to the waiter. How about pizza? Hold one palm facing upwards and draw a circle above it with your other hand.

This is how diners order at a new pop-up café initiative that is run by deaf waiters and waitresses. Café Ohne Worte (Café Without Words) offers those who are deaf or hard of hearing a start in the catering industry, an opportunity to connect with the deaf community, and somewhere to eat where they can easily be understood. It is also an opportunity for those without hearing difficulties to better appreciate what living in a world of silence can be like.

The initiative is supported by café owners who make their premises available for the pop-up events and is the brainchild of students from the University of Cologne, in Germany. They were inspired after witnessing first hand the difficulties faced by deaf people trying to order lunch in a regular café. By 2025 it is predicted that around 90 million members of Europe’s aging population will suffer from some kind of hearing impairment.

“Being deaf can effectively cut you from the rest of society, even when it comes to something as apparently simple as ordering a coffee – or working as a waiter or waitress,” said Frederike Höfermann, a 19-year-old business student, and project manager at Café Ohne Worte. “The pop-up café has proved so popular that we are now looking to extend to further locations in Germany, and then roll out the concept in Europe.”

Café Ohne Worte is among winners of the 2017 Ford College Community Challenge (Ford C3), an education program from Ford Motor Company Fund that provides grants to student-lead programs focused on building sustainable communities.

Since launching last year, around 1,000 guests have dined at seven pop-up events, held in four different cafes, and supported by up to five waiting staff each time. Guests are first introduced to their deaf server, with whom they then communicate via sign language. Pointing is allowed – if absolutely necessary.

“This is such an inspiring project to be involved in, both to see the difference that is made to those who are deaf or hard of hearing and the enthusiasm and hard work of the students who support this amazing work,” said Debbie Chennells, manager, Ford Fund, Ford of Europe.

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