Henry Ma practices assembling a salad in the kitchen at Signs Restaurant, taking special care to place the pickled garnish on top. For Ma the opening is especially exciting because it's the first time he gets to work in a business catering to people like him.
Signs Restaurant is staffed with deaf servers, and is now open for business in Toronto’s busy Yonge and Wellesley area. The restaurant is the first project of its kind in Canada.
"I think it’s super inspiring," says Christine Nelson from the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf. "On behalf of the whole community we’re thrilled to see something like this take place."
Owner Anjan Manikumar says he got the inspiration for Signs while working in a Markham restaurant as a server. He had a deaf customer who had to order by pointing to the menu. "I felt he wasn’t getting the service he deserved," says Manikumar. "He wasn’t getting the personal touch."
Signs offers customers a chance to learn basic sign language through helpful graphics incorporated in the menu, cheat-sheets placed on tables and wall mounted photographs illustrating signs for common words needed in a restaurant like the names of alcoholic drinks.
"We expect our customers to order using sign language - our menus are designed in such a way that our customers can do that," says Manikumar. "This will allow our customers to experience the fun of learning something new."
The restaurant wants to become a meeting place for the deaf community and any hearing customers interested in learning and practising sign language in a casual atmosphere.
"I’m just happy to be a part of it," says Lis Pimentel, one of the VIP guests at the opening. "It’s important for us to learn more about deaf culture and American Sign Language."
Manikumar says the restaurant not only offers a fun new experience to hearing customers who can try their hand at sign language but it also gives people from the deaf community job opportunities in a sector that they have been traditionally left out of.
"We want to create awareness for the hearing community that the deaf community has the ability to do anything and everything," says manager Rachel Shemuel, "It’s also a good opportunity for the hearing community to see exactly what it is that the deaf community go through on a day to day basis."
Manikumar says that when they first posted for a position of a deaf wait staff they were inundated with hundreds of responses.
"I hope this encourages people in other sectors to hire deaf people as well," says Manikumar.
Right now the restaurant has been swamped with reservations from Toronto diners eager to try their hands at sign language.