For Smriti Nagpal and Virat Suneja, opening a café and employing hearing impaired people wasn’t a decision that needed much thought. Virat had grown up with his cousins, Kapil and Mamta (Smriti’s siblings) who are hearing impaired.
Speaking about how the café came into being, Virat says, “It was a dinner table conversation that gave Smriti and me the impetus to start a café. We knew that other than being hearing impaired there is absolutely no difference in them. Also, growing up with them (cousins) did change the way I look at differently abled people.”
Smriti is fluent in sign language and has been working as a sign language interpreter with DD news for over a decade now.
The cousins chose the name Hearken, which means “to hear” in Old English—an apt title for a café that emphasises on listening to each other in the absence of words.
The café has been in existence for about six months now and has gained popularity amongst their patrons. Virat says, “We want to ensure that we are inclusive in the true sense of the word. It isn’t just lip-service for us. We organise various events at the café and that ensures that we are on our toes and also helps us in constantly evolving.” For instance, a recent event saw a mime act performed by Manoj Kumar, one of the hearing impaired waiters at the café who is also a deaf mime artist and very passionate about theatre.
“In the beginning it was difficult to make the servers understand what the roles entailed,” says Virat.
“But with training and practice they are now well-versed with all that needs to be done to run the café. Having Smriti train them has been a boon.”
Having started the cafe, the duo is now working to ensure that sign language is given its due. Virat says, “While we all learn various languages in school, one very important language that I feel needs to be given its due is sign language.” The café conducts sign language classes every Tuesday between 5.00 pm and 6.00 pm.
“We encourage people to come in large numbers and learn. We need to break the stereotypes that cloud our minds.”
A report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that 360 million people in the world suffer from hearing loss. This constitutes a substantial 5.3% of the world’s population. With these disquieting statistics, one would hope that more organisations and public spaces would practice inclusivity.
When asked how receptive the guests are to the concept, Virat says, “We have been meeting various kinds of people. While most of them are very encouraging, we have also met a few who are surprised and unable to grasp the concept. It is truly a mixed bag.”
He concludes, “I want people to know about the hearing impaired. I would like mainstream to engage with them more and if through the café we are able to achieve that in some small way, I would be happy. What keeps us going is this urge to make a difference.”
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