café auslan: Not Just an Ordinary Café

A new café has thrown open its doors in Battery Point in Hobart, Tasmania. But it’s not an ordinary café.

It’s called café auslan, and it officially opened on 28th May 2019. It combines a love of coffee with a passion for opening people’s minds to the benefits of sign language.

Rachel Freeman is co-owner of café auslan, and she is Deaf. She’s a quiet achiever but is also extroverted, friendly, confident, and fiercely ambitious. She loves cooking, entertaining, and reading.

I love inspiring entrepreneurs, and love a good article to read with a cup of coffee.”

She’s also a strong advocate for equality in the Deaf community.

“I’ve been bullied and discriminated. I’ve been manipulated and taken advantage of. There are too many situations to mention or explain in detail. I’ve had to try harder than the average person to succeed. But I’ve learned a lot from these experiences. I won’t accept or stand for mistreatment now. I won’t tolerate being made fun of anymore.”

Rachel loves being Deaf.

I belong to a rich culture, a vibrant community, and know amazing languages,” she says.

I’m so lucky. #deafgain is a thing! I am profoundly Deaf in my right ear, and severe-to-profound in my left. I don’t have very much hearing left. I have a very rare condition/disability called Mondini’s Dysplasia [also known as Mondini’s Syndrome]. It’s a type of inner ear malformation that develops in the seventh week of gestation that causes the cochlea in the ears to be one-and-a-half turns (coil) rather than two-and-a-half turns. It unfortunately affects my balance, and puts me at higher risk of meningitis.”

Despite growing up deaf, she didn’t see herself as different from others.

I was a regular, normal child who did everything that other children did,” she explains.

I sign and speak by choice,” she adds. “When I was young, I actually thought being able to sign was my superpower!”

She was taught how to sign by Deaf teachers and teacher aides, as well as by members of the Deaf community.

It takes seven years to be fluent in sign language,” Rachel explains, “but when you learn as a young child, you naturally sponge every aspect of it. It didn’t take long! But I’m still learning. Sign language is a living language that continues to change and evolve, and it’s becoming more linguistically sophisticated too. I actually learnt a new sign the other day!”

Learning to speak was Rachel’s biggest challenge growing up.

I was speaking naturally from birth,” she says, “but when I was diagnosed, I had to have regular speech therapy to learn how to pronounce letters and words. I still struggle with some words and ask how to say them, especially if I have never heard or used the word before. Words that have silent letters are tricky, or are pronounced differently than what they are spelled like, are a challenge.”

But she doesn’t lip-read.

Communicating by reading lips is one of the biggest misconceptions of Deaf people,” she explains. “We don’t. We look at your face, your movements, lip patterns, your expressions, your eyes, body language – the whole package. Did you know that we can only see 40% of information from lip reading? It’s quite a challenge. You don’t learn to read lips, though there used to be courses to do this. But it’s not effective because some people have accents, beards, or are quite inexpressive. Try this: say ‘Elephant shoes’ in front of a mirror. Then say ‘I love you’. They look exactly the same, don’t they? How would we know how to lip read or pronounce something if we have never heard the word before?”

Now married and raising a daughter, Rachel wears a hearing aid. She feels incredibly lucky to have it, though she doesn’t have to wear it all the time. It amplifies sound, so when she wears it, she can hear the general ‘noise’ of the world: people talking; music; TV; the tapping of keyboards.

Without my hearing aid,” she explains, “my world plunges into silence. So, I’m able to sleep well! The flipside is that unfortunately I experience tinnitus, and ringing in the ears.”

But there’s no way Rachel would trade one of her other senses.

I think being Deaf is like winning the lottery,” she says.

If I lost my sight, I’d be devastated because I wouldn’t be able to see the world around me.”

*

The Australian Deaf community is a diverse, cultural, and linguistic minority group. Auslan (Australian Sign Language) was recognised by the Australian government in 1991. It’s a visual and spatial language. It has its own grammar, structure, and syntax.

It’s a personal choice to identify with the Deaf community, and doesn’t depend on the degree of deafness. Instead, people identify with the cultural model of deafness. Deaf people see themselves as normal. They, and advocates of the cultural perspective of deafness, believe that Deaf people are not disabled, instead seeing themselves as a linguistic minority group.

Rachel’s advice for Deaf people who are struggling with the situation is this:

Keep going. Don’t give up, persist, and be your own advocate. The world needs more strong and positive Deaf people!”

Here’s a basic guide on how to communicate with Deaf people.

  • Gain the person’s attention by wave or touch. You can also use vibrations, either by thumping the table or stomping your foot on the floor.

  • Face the person throughout the whole conversation. Don’t obstruct your face, and make sure there’s enough light so that they can see you well.

  • Ask the Deaf person how they prefer to communicate (sign, lip-read, talk, or write). Whichever method you end up using, make sure the Deaf person is comfortable with it.

  • Explain clearly what’s happening or going to happen, so the Deaf person is not left out or left guessing.

  • Watch for indications of understanding: nods at appropriate moments, a negative shaking of the head, a questioning expression, or a slight frown.

  • If you’re not understood when you say something, rephrase your statement. Make sure you establish the topic before making comments or asking questions. Give visual cues and keep messages short.

  • Give the Deaf person time to answer.

  • Don’t hesitate to ask a Deaf person to slow down or to repeat his or her statement.

  • Do not pretend to understand.

In Rachel’s mind, the most important thing people should do when communicating with people who are deaf is respect and patience.

“Do not assume that one size-fits all with deaf people,” she says.

Some deaf people prefer to only sign, some like speaking, while others prefer to write to communicate. Just remember: if you are in a room full of Deaf people who are signing, how would you feel? Most deaf people have to ‘fit’ and immerse themselves in a speaking and hearing-dominant, culture every single day.”

*

café auslan is located where Bahr’s Chocolate Shop and Milk Bar, a lolly shop that was an institution in Battery Point for many years, used to be.

It’ll be Tasmania’s first sign language café, and it will operate differently than ‘normal’ cafes.

“Imagine stepping into the shoes of an Auslan user and experiencing different ways of ordering your coffee, without speech!” Rachel explains.

“Our café will be a social space for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. It’ll also be safe place for anyone to come in, see what it’s all about, ask questions, and learn a sign or two. But we do not expect people to order in Auslan. There are some far more easier ways; but if you wish to communicate in your first language, we’ll work with that.”

Rachel adds: “At café auslan, we want to offer work experience, training and employment opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing people (as well as those proficient in Auslan), and bridge the language gap between communities.”

café auslan offers quality coffee and petite desserts and treats, incorporating the history of the lolly shop. There’s no doubt there it’ll be one of the premier places in Hobart to have coffee and cake!

*

Rachel and her business partner, Jane Hodgkinson, have been friends for nine years, and worked together for six. They both love their coffee!

Jane has full hearing, and she’s also fluent in Auslan. Auslan has been a part of her life since childhood. She studied the language in Melbourne full-time for two years. She’s spent twenty-five years working in the Deaf community.

The idea of opening a Deaf cafe was something they first thought of six years ago, when a café opened across the road from their work.

“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible if we opened an Auslan café?’” Rachel says.

“We thought it’d provide Auslan students a chance to socialise and immerse themselves in the language.”

But they didn’t take their Auslan café idea any further. That is, until Rachel saw a coffee van for sale on Facebook last year. She sent the link to Jane straight away.

“I said ‘Look at this!’, not taking it too seriously,” she explains.

“But Jane replied, ‘Let’s do it. Want to go into business?’ I thought she was joking! From that point on, we began to formulate our business plan.”

It took Rachel and Jane three months to find a premise that was fit for what they wanted to do. Once they secured the old lolly shop building, they had plans drawn up by a planner while liaising with the Council, a building surveyor, and various tradespeople. They applied for permits, which were eventually accepted, and then the café was fitted out. It was a process that took four months.

“It wasn’t always easy,” Rachel says.

“There was delay after delay. But we are finally here, and I have to say we’ve learnt to adopt an extraordinary, unreal amount of patience!”

She continues: “There’s been an incredible amount of hard yakka, spending day after day at the café, painting and doing other DIY jobs. We’ve become experts at renovating!”

Rachel is beyond excited (but also nervous) to see how café auslan will go.

“But it’s now more overwhelming and exciting since we’ve gone live!” she declares.

Rachel’s advice to those who are thinking of setting up their own business is this:

It takes a lot of courage, and often ruffled feathers. Find stuff you love doing and go do it. Life is too short! You have to have passion, commitment, patience, continued curiosity for learning, and a healthy dose of madness and obsession. You also have to tap into any and all available resources, and network around you. Your calling often comes out of difficult experiences. Setting up your own business takes time, taking risks, and being ballsy. But most importantly believing in it, your product or service, and doing everything you possibly can (and often making huge sacrifices) to make it a reality. Choose your purpose. It’s about service, not status. It’s about contribution, and certainly not significance.”


Words and photo by Callum J Jones

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