Silent conversations

At the intersection of Yonge Street and Wellesley Street is SIGNS restaurant. Though it offers a wide selection of food, the menu is not what makes this particular spot so intriguing. The space’s interior is modern, with understated décor. The exception is the poster-like framed photos that adorn the walls. At first glance, they almost look like movie posters or advertisements for an array of one person shows. Take a second look and it becomes clear that the individuals in these images are not posing, but are using sign language to depict the words at the bottom of the frames.

SIGNS’ tagline is “where noise meets silence” and is the first restaurant to be established in Canada requiring customers to order in American Sign Language (ASL) and employing mostly hearing-impaired staff. The restaurant’s unique approach results in a different dining experience than what you would find in most restaurants. This unique experience is exactly what owner Anjin Manikumar intended when he imagined the restaurants after noticing deaf guests struggling to order in other establishments.

Vicki, hostess at SIGNS, described her impression of guests’ experiences as “eye opening.”

“They get a feel for what this culture is like,” she adds.

Once seated at SIGNS, patrons are handed menus — each item is accompanied by an image depicting the corresponding sign language. There are also materials to guide sign language newcomers through general conversational signing.

Tristan, a server at SIGNS, feels that the experience benefits both parties.

“I think other restaurants should offer the option of ordering in ASL,” he says. He adds that adjusting hiring policies to include hearing-impaired servers would improve accessibility, providing barrier-free communication for deaf and hearing patrons. ASL is a comprehensive and complex language based on hand gestures, body postures, and facial expressions. Similar to any language, ASL also has its own grammatical rules, though they are gesture-based.

According to Vicki, when Manikumar decided to open the restaurant he thought it would be interesting if the “platforms were switched,” flipping restaurant convention so that ordering in ASL was the norm, not the exception. The change presents a challenge for hearing customers to extend themselves and try a new skill, whereas deaf patrons are able to order with ease.

Because of my own short time at SIGNS, I was able to pick up on some ASL, including “thank you” and “enjoy.” That being said, to become competent at even a small portion of ASL would take far longer than a three-course meal at SIGNS. Experienced signers gesturing fluidly contrasts with newcomers triple-checking the images on the menu and consulting friends on whether they had the correct form.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about observing the interactions in the restaurant is the diversity of communication. Some patrons were speaking aloud, whereas other guests communicated completely through signs. Others still combined the two. The result is a unique atmosphere that not only provides a fun introduction into ASL but also serves as a reminder about the diversity of expression and the importance of accessibility.