• Text By: Dianne Goh
  • Photo By: Dianne Goh

Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

“You can work for yourself. Being deaf doesn’t mean you put yourself down.”

The sudden, loud hissing sound of hot steam startles a few customers, but not the staff at Fingertalk Cafe and Car Wash. Why? Because they are all deaf.

Many customers do not realise it at first, but once they do, they adapt quickly and are able to communicate with the friendly staff by gesturing or writing on paper.

Customers are usually given a menu, an order sheet and a laminated card showing how to sign greetings and words in Indonesian, like “thank you”, “eat”, and “delicious”. The card not only helps customers and staff to communicate, but also lets customers try their hand (literally) at sign language, thus getting rid of any misconception they may have had about the hearing-impaired.

Fingertalk Café has two outlets – both about an hour’s drive out of Jakarta – and employ a total of 24 workers. One branch is in Pamulang and houses a craft workshop where staff makes handicraft products for sale, while the other is in Cinere, and provides a car wash service.

Why a deaf café?
The café is the brainchild of 27-year-old Dissa Ahdanisa. She loves learning new languages and although she can hear, considers sign language as another language to pick up. Dissa was inspired to set up her business while doing volunteer work in Nicaragua, where she chanced upon Café de la Sonrisas (“sonrisas” means “smiles” in Spanish) – Latin America’s first café run entirely by deaf employees. The café was bright and cheery, and its staff, friendly. They were “proud to have deaf employees”, said Dissa.

Spurred on by her experience, Dissa opened her first outlet in Pamulang in May 2015. She painted it in bright colours like yellow and pink, believing that the cheerful hues will make customers feel comfortable and happy, instead of feeling sorry for the deaf employees.

Dissa is optimistic about the cafe’s future.

Undaunted and passionate
In order to save up enough money to realise her dream, Dissa continued working full-time in Singapore after setting up her first cafe. She shuttled furiously between Singapore and Jakarta, taking sign language classes, recruiting staff and learning how to set up her own business, which she had never done before. It was tough.

The deaf community were painfully shy about their disability and had no confidence in interacting with those who can hear. The different variations of Indonesian sign language also extremely frustrated Dissa, especially when she realised that some people in the deaf community did not even know how to sign!

But Dissa persevered, and met the deaf community through community leaders at the Movement for Indonesian Deaf People’s Welfare (GERKATIN). She soon learned that interacting with the hearing-impaired meant that she had to constantly make sure that they understood what she was saying, as they were afraid to tell her when they did not. “This is because they don’t want to be looked upon as stupid, or make you feel uncomfortable,” she explained. So she patiently repeated herself and kept her sentences simple.

As the cafe started growing in popularity, Dissa reached a point where she could no longer run it from Singapore. Despite warnings from well-meaning friends, she took the plunge last year (Sept 2016) and quit her job.

But when she received a glowing endorsement from former United States president Barack Obama, in his speech to other young leaders at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, Dissa knew that she had made the right decision. That crucial meeting with Mr Obama inspired her to press on.

Growing strong
Not only is Fingertalk Cafe providing the deaf in Indonesia with work opportunities, financial independence, and skill empowerment, it is also boosting their self-confidence and self-worth.

 Its staff – who are now financially independent – have more confidence in themselves after learning new skills and contributing to society. For some, Fingertalk Café is their first job experience, and one where they get to meet and work with other deaf people.

Take Septi for example, one of the café’s cooks. The 21-year-old has been happily working there for a year and a half. Septi used to be shy, but now enjoys interacting with hearing customers. She wants to learn to sign in English so that she can communicate with even more customers.

Dissa constantly encourages her team not to pity or hold themselves back just because of their disability. “You can work for yourself. Being deaf doesn’t mean you put yourself down,” she said.

The cafe’s staff is extremely proud of what they do.

Tales of inspiration
Dissa aims to train her staff in food catering, and compete on a level playing field with restaurants. “Every day, we make sure the food and service are good, so that we can compete with other people. In fact, we add more value because we are helping deaf people,” she pointed out.

But what makes her different from other business owners is that she puts the needs of the deaf community first, and wants to tell their stories. “If we expand our business, will the social impact increase? Or will it have adverse effects?” she asked. “We want to highlight our staff as people who have survived and made Fingertalk Cafe happen.”

To reach out to more of the hearing-impaired community, Dissa and her 22-year-old café manager, Ali Wafa, travelled to Poso, Sulawesi – previously a conflict zone – to meet and find ways to help the deaf people there.

Despite their achievements so far, Dissa believes there is still much more to learn and strive for. Fingertalk Café is working towards being financially stable, and Dissa and Ali are working on perfecting their sign language.

 “There are so many things to learn, and Fingertalk has kept me grounded and taught me to stay humble,” noted Dissa, who looks ahead to the future with determination and hope.

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