Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Welcome signs for hearing impaired"

Caption: A whiteboard at the Sign with Me cafe in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, is full of messages from customers. It is also used to communicate with cafe staff.

My friend recently came back from Tokyo and told me about a "deaf cafe" he went to. And then on Saturday The Daily Yomiuri had a photo story about the place. Check it out. Story, captions and photos borrowed from The Daily Yomiuri Online, 5/14/12:

By Koki Kataoka / Yomiuri Shimbun Photographer
When you go to a cafe or restaurant, you usually hear, "Hello, may I help you?" or "May I take your order?" However, such greetings are not heard at the Sign with Me cafe in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo.

Most of the cafe's seven employees are hearing impaired, so they communicate with customers in sign language or in writing.

Store manager Masahiro Yanagi, 39, who is also hearing impaired, opened the cafe in December in the Hongo district, hoping to create a workplace where hearing impaired people can enjoy their jobs.

The cafe has many customers with similar impairments and occasionally even organizes job seminars for them. 

However, Yanagi said he wants people who are unfamiliar with sign language to visit his cafe, too.

If customers do not understand sign language, they can order using an iPad information terminal or by writing on whiteboards that cover the walls. Yanagi said about 80 percent of his customers cannot communicate in sign language, but quite a few became interested in learning it after visiting the cafe.

Sign language is just one of many languages, like French and German. To help people understand that sign language is a language like any other, a regular study meeting has recently started in a corner of the cafe.

Exchanges in sign language have steadily been expanding little by little.

Here are the rest of the photos.

Caption: A cafe employee uses an iPad to confirm a customer's order. If a customer does not know sign language, they can order with an iPad.

Caption: An employee wears Masclear, a transparent mask enabling those with hearing impairments to see mouth movements and facial expressions, which are important communication tools, more clearly.

Caption: Members of the sign language study group Shikaku Hiroba enjoy conversing in sign language while they eat. Michiko Furuta, second from right, said she can't help but smile whenever she comes to the cafe. 


OK (I can hear my students asking me), what's wrong with the story? Well... The main problem is with the term hearing impaired. The term that should be used is deaf. This is the term that deaf people themselves use for the most part (in Japanese rou, ろう). Perhaps Japanese people feel hearing impaired is more appropriate or polite when they are writing/speaking in English. Perhaps there is some political correctness at play here. But being defined as impaired is not what these people want. Deaf is not a bad word to them.

The last photo is definitely posed. OK everyone, do a sign. 1-2-3... hai chi-zu.

I do like how the photographer captures the whiteboard and the use of technology (iPad) as examples of ways in which the deaf can communicate with hearing people who can't sign.

I also like how the importance of facial expression is emphasized. But the caption makes it seem as though the Masclear is some special device allowing deaf people to have more facial expressions. It is not. It is the same as the usual surgical masks that Japanese people wear when they are sick, have allergies or work with food. And facial expression is much more than a communication tool, it holds the key to meaning and grammar. Facial expression is a non-manual sign and perhaps one of the most difficult parts of sign language to master.

You can find out more about this place on-line. Here is a video message in JSL from the owner (with captions in Japanese).


Check out the cafe's homepage as well.

Link to Sign With Me Official Website:

A common theme in my research over the years is that deaf people are excellent communicators. And they want to communicate with each other and with hearing people. This latest photo essay is another example of Japanese deaf people reaching out for this goal. Thanks to the photographer for this story.

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