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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.
“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.”
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.
Only minutes after the Twitter announcement that the classes might be held during the summer, area businesses were responding with enthusiasm and inquiring about signing up, according to Julia Christian, executive director of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals. About 12 businesses have signed up, with more expected to join.
“This is a way to bridge the communication gap and bring everyone together,” Christian said. “It’s important for the community to talk about it, to understand how to understand one another.”
Swiller is confident the classes will help the businesses as much as they help the students.
“Making that effort to learn some signs is a very warm introduction or a very warm opening,” he said. “To make that effort, it’s a step towards making people feel more comfortable and willing to come back.”
Video: How to Order a Drink Using Sign Language
I’m Fritz from the Rock N Roll Hotel up in lovely Northeast Washington, D.C. We’re about two blocks away from Gallaudet University, and you’ve got to know your demographic. So, in the first two years, it was kind of hard getting a drink order out of someone because every single time you have to get a pen and a piece of paper, pass it back and forth, it gets wet on the bar, it gets stuck to the bar, it gets lost.
So it’s just a lot easier to learn. So let’s go: You’ve got a Red Bull and vodka. Or you’ve got like a vodka tonic. If you want to get fancy, you can get like a Grey Goose and cranberry. What else have we got here? Oh, here we go, you’ve got a Jägerbomb. And, oh, a car bomb.
And then the blues are my favorites. If you learn your ABCs if you’re a bartender, pretty much anything you can do with your ABCs. You can spell drinks out. It’ll take you two days to learn your ABCs. If you’re next to Gallaudet, I recommend it, it just makes it easier. So, the blues. You got your B, that’s blue. This would be Blue Moon. Blue motorcycle. Or even better, the blue Hawaiian.
And then a lot of it, there’s a lot of humor in the deaf community. So we make them up, and they understand it. So let’s say you want a Captain and Coke. Well, you could spell it out and do the whole nine. Or you could just say, so you want a “Captain” and “Coke,” and they get it right away.
A lot of it’s humor and a lot of it’s just understanding your clients. We turn the bass up, we have smiles and it’s made our relationships with this demographic a lot better over the years. I’m Fritz, and that’s it.