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."
“A lot of our bartenders have learned how to say a majority of the drinks — Red Bull-vodka, beers,” he said. “We know our regulars, we know their names. A lot of it is patience and having them write it down a few times. We know how to say, ‘Teach me,’ and they’ll show you the sign to speed up the process.”
H Street Country Club is also popular with the crowd. The bar has hosted events with the Gallaudet alumni association and has hired sign-language-proficient staff specifically to help communicate with deaf customers. Those who don’t know sign language — even the bouncers — carry a pen and pad to help bridge the language barrier.
Employees of restaurants as far away from the Gallaudet campus as Ted’s Bulletin in Eastern Market have learned to sign to accommodate the clientele. A bartender and a server at Ted’s Bulletin have studied American Sign Language. When the other staffers realized how helpful it could be, they asked to learn.
“One of the girls, I taught her all the signs that were good to know for hosting, and she taught some of the other girls,” said Cara Bumgardner, a server at Ted’s who took sign language for five years in college. “They all know, ‘How many?’ That was one of the most important ones. They learned ‘wait,’ ‘minutes.’”
In addition to ‘thank you,’ ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘water,’ the bartenders have picked up signs for a wide variety of drinks and specials.
“There’s so much humor in American Sign Language,” Wood said. “A Blue Hawaiian would be a ‘b’ and then a little Hawaiian dance. We also make up our own, and they get it. Captain and Coke would be a captain stance with your foot propped up and a finger to your nose, that kind of thing.”
All of the local restaurant employees said they enjoyed interacting with the students.
“They tend to laugh a lot louder since they don’t have any monitoring of how loud they are,” Bumgardner said. “They’re always really nice. They’re fun. They tend to have a really great sense of humor — they’re usually very witty.”
“We love them,” Wood said. “They’re the regulars. They’re great guys.”
But using sign language as a hearing person can be precarious. Though she said the situation is changing, Bumgardner pointed out that not all deaf people are happy to see hearing people signing.
“You have to read people,” she said. “You can’t just walk up to somebody and say, ‘I know sign language.’ You have to be invited into the culture, and that’s kind of hard to gauge.” The Gallaudet community, however, seems to be willing to engage.
“Our students, more than ever, are up to the challenge of being interactive citizens,” said Sam Swiller, associate director of real estate and economic development for Gallaudet. Swiller uses a cochlear implant. “What used to be a somewhat isolated environment is becoming more open and more engaging.”