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Turning the Tables - Café Auslan opens in Hobart

Rachel at work in Hobart's newest cafe

 Winter has come a bit early. Since we have been in the grip of an icy Antarctic blast for about a week, it seemed the perfect time to check out one of our newest cafés. Not that Hobart has a shortage of cafés. In Hampton Road, where this one is, I can probably count about six, without even going down the hill to Salamanca. What makes this one different, is that Café Auslan  represents a coup for the Deaf Community. 

The café is located in a former sweet shop in colonial Battery Point, just behind Salamanca

So what is Auslan and why have a café dedicated to it? Auslan stands for Australian Sign Language which is used by some 200,000 people largely by and for communicating with hearing impaired people. While similar to the 130 or so variations of sign used around the world, it is, so to speak its own language. So why do we need a cafe? About the only way I can describe it, is like this: You know the feeling you get when you first arrive in a foreign country - the frustration and confusion of not being able to make yourself understood and even having people shout at you and regard you as stupid for not doing as you've been told? That’s the kind of struggle which Deaf people face every day when dealing with the hearing world. It is source of immense stress.  How lovely then for Deaf people to be able to relax for once, to be able to socialise normally and maybe even have a bit of laugh as others try life from their perspective. 

Not so different - sweet treats and good coffee

There’s more to it than that though. As co -owner Jane who has long been an advocate for the Deaf says, “It’s about creating awareness about Auslan and about the needs of people with hearing problems.” From all accounts hearing loss is one of those invisible conditions which is rarely covered by the National Disability Scheme, yet, according to the World Health Organisation, affects around 30,000 people in Australia, about 37.5 million in the USA and around 5% of the world’s population or around 466 million people worldwide.

 Deaf people do not necessarily want to be adjusted to fit the norm. Indeed, theirs is for the most part a quite separate culture that just wants a bit more acceptance and understanding on the part of the wider society. And why should the Deaf always have to do the accommodating? According to Jane, despite decades of effort by community groups, things have changed little for Deaf people in the outside world, a few closed captioned movies or signed television news items, notwithstanding. How, for instance, should you engage someone's attention if they can’t hear you call their name? In that case, a light touch on their arm will help, as will maintaining eye contact. Giving a Deaf person a little more personal space to allow for hand movement is important too. Given that disabling deafness is expected to increase to around one in 10 people by 2050, Jane believes it’s time Auslan was taught in schools, if we are to have a more inclusive society.

Jane talks about some of the challenges faced by the Deaf, while Rachel makes a point

Lastly, the café also demonstrates what Deaf people can achieve, given a more supportive environment. A similar café in Melbourne, Trade Block is part of the Vocational Training program at The Victorian College of the Deaf and gives participants more self-esteem and the opportunity for financial independence.  It sends a message that it's OK to be different and by engaging with the public on their own  terms, it helps to break down the fear of “the other.”  As yet, there are few such vocational and employment opportunities for the Deaf, especially in Tasmania and internationally I know of only one other venue like this, one I encountered in Nepal back in 2008, but I dare say the Deaf Community in each region will know of more. If there are none in your area, it could be an idea whose time has come.   

The small selection of sweets is a nod to the building's former status as the Village Lolly Shop

For the most part this café, in the former sweet shop in Battery Point, does not differ much from its peers – good coffee, charming hosts, a selection of small treats, Devonshire teas and yes, you can have the usual range of lattes and macchiatos, including decaf and lactose-free, but as well as being smart and immaculately clean, it is almost Spartan in its décor. This is because undue clutter imposes additional stress on people reliant on visual cues. Learn more about how you can help here.

Minimalist decor and wide tables make life easier for Auslan speakers

In the meantime, I challenge you to order your coffee in Auslan, but don’t despair if you can’t. You can always point to what you would like on the menu. I still haven’t worked out how to say, “I wouldn't mind one of your vanilla slices, thanks” and wish I wasn’t on a diet. I am ashamed to admit that I don't even know how to say "Please" or " Thank you" or even "Hello" or "Goodbye." Maybe next time.
 If you need help with any aspect of hearing loss please contact