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Patrons Use Universal Sign Language : Cafe an Oasis of Quiet in Noisy Manila

United Press International

In a cozy corner of Manila’s sprawling seaside Rizal Park, visitors can cool off at an open-air coffee shop where the loudest sound is the ticking of the cash register.

“I like this place. It’s so quiet and peaceful,” said Frenchman Henry Laborde, sipping his morning coffee. “The waiters are deaf and mute but they are nice,” said the 75-year-old retiree from Paris.

The canteen was established in 1969 by the privately run Philippine Assn. of the Deaf (PAD). Association officials said they believe it is the only coffee shop in the world run solely by hearing-impaired persons.

Simply named the PAD Coffee Shop, it has 50 employees--a manager, cooks, waiters, waitresses and janitors. All of them communicate through the quick hand gestures of sign language.

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Only Rodolfo Soriao, PAD director for food services, and a security guard are not hearing handicapped.

Surrounded by acacia trees in the expansive park at the edge of sparkling Manila Bay, the 250-seat open-air coffee shop is a favorite of foreigners and Filipinos who yearn for some peace and quiet in crowded Manila.

Soriao said hearing-impaired from other countries also love to visit the place, which is open 24 hours, because “they know that the sign language is universal and they can communicate with each other.”

Roofed with galvanized iron, the coffee shop has no walls. Breezes from the bay keep it free of pollution from smoke-belching buses plying the crowded tourist district and from smoke from a nearby oil-fired power plant.

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Small gardens surrounding the restaurant filter noise from the traffic and from a nearby business district. Steel chairs and tables are neatly lined in rows on the concrete pavement.

Within full view is the park’s huge fountain in front of the restaurant and the elegant Manila Hotel across the grassy expanse.

As a client finds a table, he signals the waiter. Sometimes it takes more than one signal because the waiter may be involved in joking or gossiping with friends.

The waiter hands over a menu on which the customer is advised in bold letters: “You are being served by the deaf.” With the menu is a ballpoint pen and a blank receipt where the customer jots down his order.

Soriao said the waiters know how to read and count. Most of them have completed an elementary and high school education at an institution also run by the association and partially paid for by the coffee shop. Employees also have been given professional training.

“They are very industrious,” Soriao said. “They have to be because they know that they cannot easily find jobs outside this place. They’re enjoyable to be with and there is less intrigue here.”

But Soriao said their handicaps sometimes hamper their work. For example, he said, when they engage in conversation while washing the dishes, they waste time because they have to stop and use their hands to communicate.

Bound by the common silence of their world, the employees find the canteen to be as comfortable as home.

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“When we go out we feel inferior because we become the butt of jokes,” head waiter Mises Castro said through an interpreter. “This is our small world.”

But hard times have caught up with the business, Soriao said. Profit is barely enough to subsidize the school, which offers free education to poor students.

Donations from private institutions in other countries such as Japan, West Germany and even China have been of great help to the organization, Soriao said.

Work in the canteen also has been rewarding to its employees.

Lila del Rosario, 57, the cheerful chief cook, and her husband, Ernesto, have been working in the restaurant since 1971 and have been able to see their three children through college as a result.

Soriao said most of the married employees have met their spouses in the restaurant.

Children of the coffee shop employees who have inherited their parents’ handicap also often end up working in the restaurant.

“The anti-nepotism law cannot be applied here,” Soriao said.

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