Societies across the world have pursued the ideal of beauty and of perfection over the centuries. In the Age of the Internet this exercise has become a sinister routine, largely due to the fact that our thirst for perfection is fueled by the media and by society. Individually and collectively, we become averse to confronting the more uncomfortable realities of life such as social inequality, hunger and poverty and most unfortunately, human disability. But at the SIGNS Bar & Restaurant on 558 Yonge Street in Toronto, an optimistic approach to the challenges of disability can be found.
A range of food is served- chips and guacamole, Vietnamese Banh-Mi (sandwiches), Pad Thai and the omnipresent Indian butter chicken. The last dish appears to have conquered eateries in the city rather like the British conquered its land of origin, but that rant merits a separate article. The ambience of the place is young and cheerful, enhanced by the smiling staff and by the black and white photographs adorning the walls. The drinks cost from 5-10 $ and each dish is priced between 15- 20$, therefore the description of “upscale” on Google is justified. However, this is an eatery one would want to experience more for the servers working there than the food- because they are deaf and mute.
On entering the premises, one is greeted by the silent but smiling staff and seated by a member of the team who can speak. The speaker introduces the server who will be waiting on the table for the evening, providing instructions on how to communicate with him or her. Taking photographs of the menu, which has been designed to include images instructing the reader on how to convey their order in sign language, is forbidden. But one is permitted to take a photograph in, or of, any other part of the restaurant. Alongside the menu a flipbook, containing information about using phrases like ‘Good job’ and ‘More water please’ in sign language, is provided — presumably intended to encourage the server.
Despite the slightly steep prices and fairly conventional menu, visiting this restaurant is worthwhile. It highlights how lucky most of us are — which is often easy to forget in a consumption driven society — simply because all our faculties of communication are working. Communicating with somebody who is handicapped is very challenging, and one would often not want to do so. When one does, one is likely to feel deep pity towards the other person. In fact, in 2011 CBC News reported that “less than half of Canadian adults with disabilities have jobs”. Diane Bergeron — the national director of government relations and advocacy for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — suggests that the reason visually impaired individuals, and by extension anyone with a physical or mental disability, have scarce employment opportunities is because of “a perception and an assumption that they can’t do the job.” The beauty of SIGNS is that it takes a factor out of the equation — by thematically structuring an economic opportunity around it. In doing so, it provides the people working there with daily experiences of dignity and respect.