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Capitol-Area Bars, Eateries See the Sign

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Fritz Wood, owner and general manager of the Rock N Roll Hotel on H Street Northeast, signs out the drink order for a Red Bull and vodka. In this photo, he is signing "bull."

Even the most decisive groups of friends can have trouble making plans for a Friday night.

But for Gallaudet University alumnus Robert Sirvage, who is deaf, getting a few drinks with friends is an especially complicated task — one that some local bars are trying to make easier.

The group first has to find a bar or restaurant with enough lighting that they will be able to see each other signing. If they’re waiting for a spot to open, they’ll have to explain to the waitress to come get them, instead of calling out their name when it’s ready, or they might miss the cue and have their reservation erased.

They also need a table big enough for them to sit in a circle and face one another because eye contact forms the basis of their conversations.

And even if they can find a place that fits their needs, they still have to find a way to order food and drinks.

Such issues “typically lead to misunderstandings and conflict between the deaf and the hearing,” Sirvage said through a phone interpreter. “They think we’re just taking up too much space, but no, that’s just how we communicate. That’s how we are.”

Sirvage and his friends are not alone: In the United States, such difficulties plague about 217,000 functionally deaf adults from ages 18 to 44.

But because of the more than 2,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing students and faculty at Gallaudet University, staff at the bars and restaurants of Capitol Hill and H Street Northeast have learned to accommodate many of these issues. 

Because they see deaf customers every day — and sometimes crowds of more than 20 on weekends — some waitstaff and bartenders have started to learn sign language to better serve their clientele.

“We learned by asking, just by being inquisitive, wanting to know,” Sticky Rice co-owner Jason Martin said. In the past, the restaurant even employed former Gallaudet students because they were so popular with the deaf clientele.

More than half of the bartenders at the Rock N Roll Hotel know some sign language, according to owner and general manager Fritz Wood.

Their first two years in the neighborhood were tough — either the bartenders or the students ended up confused and dissatisfied. When deaf patrons tried to write their orders on small pieces of paper, the slips would stick to the bar, get wet or get lost. Now that his staff knows sign language, things have changed.

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