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Though they don’t decide to visit a bar solely because its staff knows or doesn’t know sign language, most students said it would definitely be a point in a bar’s favor. Any rude or inconsiderate experiences would instantly turn them away from any restaurant, no matter how convenient, they said.
“I think it’s great that waitresses know some sign language or finger spelling,” Gallaudet student Sara Moore said in an email. “It shows they are motivated to learn our language and willing to understand our language. It’s always nice to see hearing people motivated to learn sign language because there isn’t a lot of hearing people who would do that.”
Even though it’s helpful for a bartender or server to know how to sign, it isn’t necessary. Enthusiasm, consideration and a friendly attitude can also go a long way.
“We don’t require a lot — it’s not that we require anything,” Sirvage said. “Just eye contact. And if you don’t know sign, be gestural, throw gestures out and learn to be more flexible.”
Local ASL teacher Chelsea Lew agreed.
“Small gestures like saying ‘thank you’ or pointing or trying to grab my attention or the hearing person next to me is always a big plus,” she said in an email.
Some bars have gone even further in trying to win over deaf customers. During its recent renovations, the Rock N Roll Hotel made sure to install two 18-inch subwoofers directly beneath the disc jockey’s booth. The restaurant’s dance music is especially loud to accommodate the deaf customers, who feel the vibrations.
“The first time I danced with a deaf person, he was the best dancer I’ve ever danced with,” Bumgardner said. “They can name the songs just from the vibrations. It was the loudest party I’ve ever been to, too.”
The District government is also helping. It has sponsored a $25,000 grant for the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and H Street Main Street, a large part of which will go toward free ASL classes for employees and owners of restaurants, bars and businesses in the area.
The 10-class “crash course” in ASL will start in July, according to Swiller, who has worked as the Gallaudet liaison for the project. Eight classes on specific sign language will focus on vocabulary and sentences that are particularly helpful in the service industry, and two of the classes will focus on deaf culture and history. Gallaudet helped locate fluent signers to lead the classes.
“We’ll give a lot of discussion time to things to be aware of,” Swiller said. “It’s OK to tap someone on the shoulder to get their attention. It’s not OK to scream at them when you’re standing behind them.”
The classes have been greeted with “extreme enthusiasm” from local businesses, he said.
“There’s a lot of curiosity in ASL and in the deaf community in general,” he said. “There’s also a desire to have greater attraction. There’s a bottom line that with greater attraction in experiences, we could increase traffic at local businesses.”
The classes were suggested by local business owners at a board meeting earlier this year.