Celestine Fraser takes a visit to London’s first sign language café welcoming everyone to enjoy a coffee, learn a little BSL, and encourage communication between D/deaf and hearing communities
Trains. Announcements. Voices. Whistles. Ticket machines. These are just some of the sounds which make Waterloo Station one of the noisiest places in London. But just minutes away, tucked behind the station, on a busy street seconds from the London Eye, a small café is providing an oasis of quiet from all the noise: Dialogue Hub is the city’s first sign language café.
From the outside, it looks almost like any other café. Bold black letters announce its name, “Dialogue Hub”, on a colourful sign. In the window, a customer sits perched at a marbled bar, his focus absorbed by his Macbook. Through the glass, we can see a raised counter, distressed wooden floors and a couple of aproned baristas. This could be Starbucks, Pret, or Cafe Nero. Blink and you’d miss the asterisk below the front signage which in tiny white writing reads “this is a British Sign Language Café!”.
Once inside, this becomes a little more obvious. I am greeted by two young baristas who sign “hello” and “welcome” in BSL. There is no music on. Next to the counter, a huge screen displays several dozen changing videos of a barista signing the BSL for anything you could ever want to order from a coffee shop: from a croissant to a passion fruit kombucha. The barista points me to a tablet on which I can see the entire menu. When I choose what I want —a peppermint tea— it opens a video which teaches me how to sign my order in BSL. With some hesitation, lots of apologising and a few replays of the video, I communicate my order to the barista. Hakan Elbir, the cafe’s owner, comes over to tell me that “please” and “thank you” are the same sign: a flat palm moving away from the chin.
“Welcome to our deaf café,” Hakan says proudly, as we sit down. “You can drink coffee everywhere but you can’t communicate with D/deaf people everywhere.” Hakan is a Turkish social entrepreneur. He is hearing, but has worked for many years with the D/deaf community. His background is in museums and in experiential learning: the process of learning directly through experience. Back in Istanbul, he ran immersive experiences which aimed to break down the “communication problem” between D/deaf and hearing and disabled and non-disabled people.
“We are living in our own bubbles,” he says, “it’s not common to have D/deaf people in your personal life, so people need this opportunity to come and talk directly with D/deaf people to learn that they are not so different.” Hakan is fluent in Turkish Sign Language but he stresses that though a misconception prevails among the hearing that there is one universal and international sign language, this is not the case: in reality, Turkish and British Sign Language are —like Turkish and English— “completely different” languages.
Once in London, it struck Hakan as surprising that though the city was multilingual and multicultural (with an estimated 151,000 BSL users across the whole UK), there was no sign language café. In April 2021, he opened Dialogue Hub and in the months since they have trained and employed at least twelve baristas, all of whom are D/deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Almost all of his employees have previously faced barriers to accessing employment — not, he says with some anger, “because they are not good baristas, but because they are deaf.” This is ‘audism’: the discrimination against D/deaf or hard-of-hearing people. It is widespread, pernicious and endemic in our culture: a consequence of a world designed for and by a hearing majority. With deafness considered the second most common disability in the UK, audism clearly contributes to our staggering disability employment gap: in 2021, the employment rate for non-disabled people was 81%, while for disabled people it was only 52.7%.
Dialogue Hub has a longer-term goal of increasing the number of deaf cafés in London and beyond to give more job opportunities to D/deaf people. They hope that this will expand their social impact: encouraging hearing people to learn more about deafness, BSL and Deaf culture. “My favourite part about working here is educating hearing people”, the barista tells me, via an interpreter. Hakan has pressed a button on the tablet on the counter and within seconds, like a genie in a bottle, a BSL interpreter has popped up on the screen. This is made possible by a partnership with InSignLanguage, an app which helps D/deaf and hearing people communicate in real time via interpreters, encouraging more meaningful interactions between the D/deaf baristas and hearing customers.
But the café also has a number of loyal deaf customers. Hakan gives me the example of a young deaf student who comes to the café “all the time” to drink coffee, hang out with the baristas and finish her homework. “For our D/deaf customers,” he says, “it’s a centre of attraction. A community.”
Suddenly, two young women enter the café. They are in a world of their own: their voices are raised and they are chatting loudly. Without taking in her surroundings, one of them announces that she would like an oat milk latte. The barista signs that he is Deaf, and then gently points her to the tablet which teaches her to place her order in BSL. The woman doesn’t get it: again she repeats—and louder this time—“oat milk latte”. The barista is kind and patient, but insistent: again he points her to the tablet. “We have to order in British Sign Language,” her friend eventually cottons on. The woman is startled, and then embarrassed: Oh! She is flustered, but willing to learn the sign for oat milk latte. She orders in BSL.
With their coffees in hand, the two women make their way out. They are smiling, giddy and a little breathless from the unexpected experience of being pushed outside their comfort zone on a coffee run. “Some people can adapt”, says Hakan, “and some cannot.” But those who are able to adapt are amply rewarded: they have been exposed to a new language, a new culture, a new way of being in the world—when all they had asked for was a latte.
This article originally appeared in the Apr/May issue of PosAbility Magazine. Author is Celestine Fraser. Main image credit: Jerry Dobson
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