Background - 22.09.2016 - 00:00 

Without a sound

On 22 and 23 September the Café des Signes visited the University Restaurant of the University of St.Gallen (HSG). Guests who can hear had the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of the deaf. A chat over coffee was held in sign language.

Four baristas, two interpreters and the organiser from the Café des Signes in St.Gallen are waiting for the first guests at the University Restaurant of the University of St.Gallen. They are speaking to each other – but no words can be heard. There are just "plop" sounds. Sounds that you hear when your lips meet. Plop, plop, plop. But the people can understand each other nevertheless. "It's important for the signs to be 'reproduced' with the lips," explains barista Cristian. That is the reason for the "plop" sounds. This is because sign language is a combination of gestures, facial expressions, body posture and words spoken without sounds.

Raising awareness and overcoming inhibitions

The Café des Signes is the opening event of the Day of Sign Language in St.Gallen on 24 September. The invitation to a chat over coffee in sign language was issued by the Swiss Federation of the Deaf. "The Café des Signes is intended to raise awareness and overcome inhibitions," says Christian Gremaud who organised the café in St.Gallen. "The University of St.Gallen is an ideal place for this. Students are open and curious." The café is run by deaf baristas: Corinne, Kathrin, Cristian and Marinus.

The first guests arrive, mainly in groups. They enter the adjoining room to the HSG University Restaurant slowly and hesitantly. Their eyes reveal what they are thinking: "How am I supposed to speak to the deaf?" In a matter of seconds the baristas remove their inhibitions and point to a tablet. It shows short films in sign language. Coffee, cappuccino, espresso, tea. The guests try to imitate the hand movements. Dexterity is required. It works and an order is placed. Their bodies relax. The guests have hardly sat down when Corinne approaches the table. She's holding the tablet. The guests are introduced to the world of the deaf in playful form. "Ah's" and "oh's" can be heard. "It's logical really," says a student.

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Deaf people also learn foreign languages
Corinne wants to build bridges and she has managed to build the first one. She talks about her life, about travelling and about misunderstandings. She is very expressive in the way she talks. No "plop" sounds are heard because she speaks the sounds aloud when talking to people who can hear. Thanks to lip reading and speaking slowly in High German, Corinne is also able to understand the guests' questions. What it's like travelling, when you have to learn the language. Corinne says that she likes travelling to Italy. "They all talk with their hands there."

For international understanding, people from different nations who speak in sign language often use "international signs". These are artificial signs invented as a "lingua franca". For, just like spoken languages, sign language has developed in a linguistic community and the signs are different, from language to language, from dialect to dialect. Swiss German sign language alone has five regional dialects: Zurich, Bern, Basel, Lucerne and St.Gallen. So deaf people learn foreign languages just like people who can hear. And they need the same amount of time to do so. A particularly difficult language is Japanese, says Christian Gremaud. "In Japan the signs are completely different from the signs of other nations." As an example he mentions the sign for "I" or "me". The usual gesture is to tap your chest with your index finger, but the Japanese tap their nose.

"Deaf people and work"

On the Day of Sign Language in St.Gallen the Swiss Federation of the Deaf will be celebrating an anniversary. This will be the 25th time that this day is being held. "As the first Day of the Deaf in 1991 took place in St.Gallen, we wanted to come back here for this anniversary," says Christian Gremaud. With the Day of Sign Language and the associated campaign, the Swiss Federation of the Deaf wishes to remind people that many deaf people suffer discrimination in the labour market, despite their skills and abilities. In the world of business, they say, there are still many barriers for the deaf. This starts right at the application stage, says Gremaud. "If I write that I'm deaf, the chance of getting an interview is practically zero." If he didn't say so there'd be a surprise in store at the interview. A widespread prejudice is that communication is impossible. "But we can communicate." Nowadays there are plenty of aids: email, SMS, video telephony, interpreters. So the baristas come from many different occupations. Corinne works as a waitress and bartender, Kathrin is a decorator, Cristian draws comics and Marinus has just completed his apprenticeship as an expert in operation maintenance.

People with a disability or chronic illness are faced with special challenges on a degree course. This is something that Christian Gremaud has also experienced. He studied at Université de Fribourg, also with the assistance of an interpreter. "As every clinical picture is different, we clarify the various special needs with the person affected," says Dr. Regula Dietsche. She is in charge of the Special Needs advice centre at the University of St.Gallen. Since February 2016 – since this position has existed – Dr. Dietsche has conducted around 80 consultations. It can be seen that disabilities and diseases are very different, from visual handicaps and depression through to diabetes. Each of these illnesses puts the person affected at a disadvantage in examinations. They therefore need measures to compensate for these disadvantages. "In the case of people who are hard of hearing or deaf we have to ascertain what aids they need for their degree course: induction loops, a place in the first row so that they can lip read, or an interpreter. We take this case by case."

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Mission accomplished

There are also two interpreters at the Café des Signes. Two out of around 70 interpreters in German-speaking Switzerland who have specialised in sign language. They help the deaf. They translate their signs into sounds and vice-versa. Simultaneously. The guests are very interested and want to learn more from the world of the deaf. "How can I learn sign language?" asks a student. Marinus presses a flyer into her hand. The Swiss Federation of the Deaf offers a wide range of courses, he says. And the online dictionary also contains many signs.

Curiosity about what being deaf is like gradually ebbs. The first "general" questions are asked. "Have they already had a look around the HSG?" The baristas say that they have not and the students offer to show them round. So the Café des Signes has achieved its purpose, which is to build bridges between the deaf and those who can hear. The communication works. With or without an interpreter.



Number of deaf people in Switzerland


In Switzerland it is estimated that there are around 10,000 people who are completely deaf. That means 0.1 per cent of the population. Up to 600,000 people are slightly to extremely hard of hearing.  They are regarded as hearing-impaired. There are no official figures as Switzerland does not collect any statistics on types of disability.





In Switzerland it is estimated that there are around 10,000 people who are completely deaf. That means 0.1 per cent of the population. Up to 600,000 people are slightly to extremely hard of hearing.  They are regarded as hearing-impaired. There are no official figures as Switzerland does not collect any statistics on types of disability.

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