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At the Café Signes, sign language and steack frites

A Paris eatery offers not just good food, but a meeting place between the hearing and nonhearing worlds

By / July 2, 2003



With its chrome sidewalk tables and chairs, mahogany counter, and recessed lighting, the Café Signes looks like any other trendy Paris restaurant-bar at first sight.

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But as soon as you sit at the counter and order a coffee, you realize that sight is what this café is all about. The barman can't hear you. He is deaf, like most of the the staff at Europe's first restaurant run by the hearing impaired.

But it's not run for deaf people, as manager Frédéric Merlet is quick to point out. "The aim is to create a place where people who can hear and those who can't can mix, to reintegrate deaf people into normal surroundings," he says.

The cafe is especially unusual in France, where the handicapped, including the estimated 110,000 deaf, are ill-served by US standards. Television programs are not captioned for the hearing impaired, for example. "We are 20 years behind," the French secretary of state for the handicapped told the daily "Le Monde" last week, as she presented a draft bill designed to make life and work easier for the disabled. French law requires large firms to set aside 6 percent of jobs for the handicapped - or pay a fine. Almost all opt to pay the fine.

The Café Signes is the brainchild of Martine Lejeau Perry, who runs a workshop for deaf people just across the street. When the bar that used to occupy the premises closed five years ago, she says, "I had the mad idea that we could run our cookery workshop in a restaurant" and open it to the public.

Since the café opened two months ago, after a long struggle to find funding, the public has flocked to the place. Says the manager, Mr. Merlet: "They find it attractive, and they like the idea."

So does Bruce Jacoud, a server who used to spend his days cooped up with other deaf people, sorting costume jewelry into plastic bags and labeling them. "At the workshop I was always doing the same thing," he recalls. "I enjoy working here, but it gets complicated when a lot of customers all come in at once."

Less complicated than it might be, though, because of the café's design. "Deaf people live in a very visual world," explains Corinne Hermont, the architect in charge of the Café Signes' interior. "We had to make the background décor simple and sober, we placed the counter so that the barman can see the whole restaurant, and we put a big window in the wall between the kitchen and the bar so that the cooks can communicate by sign language with the bar."

In the kitchen, head chef Fabrice Cia, who can hear, works with three deaf sous-chefs, and says he is learning sign language fast. French chefs are notorious for the way they scream at their underlings, but Mr. Cia knows that won't get him anywhere. "When I shout to let off steam, it doesn't make any difference to them," he says. "Perhaps it's a good thing that they can't hear what I am saying."

Nor can Cia call to the waiters when a dish is ready to serve. Instead, the waiters carry vibrating beepers: When Cia wants something served, he hits a button on a panel above his stove and a waiter's beeper goes off. "It works pretty well," he says. So does communication between clients and staff, despite all the obvious drawbacks. "Deaf people are afraid of the hearing world, afraid of not understanding, and people who can hear are afraid of deaf people." says Ms. Lejeau Perry. "But people learn, and this is a journey for everyone."

For some clients, though, the Café Signes is not a journey, it is simply a slice of blessed normality. "In any ordinary bar, customers like to chat with the barman over their coffee," says Francine Daude, a projects officer at Lejeau Perry's workshop. "Deaf people can normally just say hello, get their coffee, and that's it. Here they get a real welcome. They can have a conversation."

And they can eat well, too. I enjoyed sauteed pork from the menu, to which you can always point if the waiter has trouble reading your lips. But I had a problem explaining which ice cream I wanted from the daily specials listed on a wall chalkboard. I should have looked more carefully at my placemat. Around its border ran the sign language alphabet. It would not have been too hard to spell out M-A-N-G-O with my fingers.

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