This cafe in Melbourne is run entirely in Australian sign language

Tradeblock Cafe aims to break down barriers by encouraging hearing customers to communicate with Deaf employees in Auslan.

Rafael Billamer's world was largely silent until he was eight years old.

Spending his early childhood in the Philippines as the only Deaf member of his family, he had no-one to teach him how to communicate in Filipino sign language.

“I had hearing aids from the age of about six,” the 18-year-old told SBS News using Australian sign language, known as Auslan.

“It was good but I didn’t feel like I heard much.

“I kept going and stayed positive ... I went to school but it was just the hearing community and I was the only Deaf person, so it was quite isolating.”

Rafael Billamer
Rafael Billamer is the only Deaf member of his family Source: SBS News

In 2011, the family moved to Darwin and Rafael began finding his words.

“It was a big change and really impacted me,” he said.

“I became quite fluent and I started really learning sign language, Auslan.”

Rafael later moved to Melbourne to attend the Victorian College for the Deaf - Australia's oldest school for Deaf and hard of hearing students - and finally felt like he belonged.

“My brother and my friends didn't want to communicate with me because they would speak Filipino and I am Deaf,” Rafael said.

"So I would go straight home, alone.

“Here [In Victoria], I am more independent, I meet so many people, I make appointments and I have lots of mates.”

Rafael and Acting Assistant Principal Amanda Joyce work together at the cafe.
Rafael and Acting Assistant Principal Amanda Joyce work together at the cafe. Source: SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Rafael is now working at the college's Tradeblock Cafe. 

Staffed by Deaf students, customers are encouraged to place their order through a specially designed Auslan app at the counter.

“This is a Deaf space and the hearing customer is on the outer," cafe manager Nicole McRae said. 

"They've got to step out of their comfort zone ... break down those barriers themselves.

"Our students and staff are really empowered because they're the ones who are showing them how to use the app and teaching them the signs ... they're utilising their language in their space.”

Dilpreet and Precious serving food at Tradeblock Cafe.
Dilpreet and Precious serving pumpkin soup at Tradeblock Cafe. Source: SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Year 10 student Precious Dennis also works at the cafe. She says she enjoys interacting with hearing customers.

“I love when hearing people come and they are involved and they learn,” she said. 

“They are immersed in this culture and they understand about Deafness and equality - equality with hearing people, for Deaf people.”

A taste of employment

The cafe equips students with practical experience and the option of gaining a hospitality qualification.

“From my experience here at Tradeblock, I feel like I could work in various workplaces," Precious said.

“I might not know initially [what to do] but I’ll understand the best way to learn and I’ll reflect on my experiences here and I’ll know what to do and how to go forward.”

Customers at the cafe. Source: Instagram/tradeblockcafe_vcd

Brent Phillips from disability support organisation Expression Australia says Rafael’s story of isolation isn't unusual. 

"Now in 2019, we have hundreds of Deaf children who sit around the family dinner table and they're not able to understand or participate in a conversation that's happening,” Mr Phillips said using Auslan.

“These children are not provided the opportunity to learn or be exposed to Auslan from an early age.”

He said it is largely due to a lack of access.

“Around 95 per cent of Deaf children in Australia are born to parents who are hearing,” Mr Phillips said.

“That means that their access to Auslan as a language is probably quite limited and depends a lot on the parents, how much they know and how informed they are in making the right decisions around access to communication at home and at school.”

Nicole McRae, Precious Dennis, Rafael Billamer, Dilpreet Kaur and Amanda Joyce work together on Friday's at the cafe.
Nicole McRae, Precious Dennis, Rafael Billamer, Dilpreet Kaur and Amanda Joyce work together on Friday's at the cafe. Source: SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Anna-Louise McAllister from disability service Sign for Work, says hospitality is a great stepping stone for Deaf students.

"We don't have to rely so much on theory, it's a very hands-on job, it's perfect for Deaf people," Ms McAllister said using Auslan.

"They can be in their own world, doing the food preparation and the kitchen work in a busy space, or they can be a waitress or a waiter, it's not so hard."

"Really, Deaf people can do anything - they just can't hear."

Tradeblock Cafe offers practical experience and training to Deaf students.
Tradeblock Cafe offers practical experience and training to Deaf students. Source: SBS News, Jennifer Scherer

Dilpreet Kaur was nervous to start work in the cafe but has since enjoyed the challenge.

“I don’t interact with hearing people a lot," she said using Auslan.

“I was really hesitant and used some basic sign and gestures and I would write things down on paper.

“Sometimes I would need people to help me, but then I got used to the process."

Dilpreet Kaur
Dilpreet Kaur has enjoyed the challenge of working at the cafe. Source: SBS News

Having started the program to empower the students, acting assistant principal of the college Amanda Joyce said many of the students manage to find employment in the hospitality industry after finishing school. 

"They get to try in a safe place, in a supported environment, so it's a step out of school and a step towards employment," she said. 

"Even with language barriers, the key is to find the right, very supportive employer."

"If they can make their workplace inclusive and have Deaf awareness, then they are really going to have an incredible experience, a diverse workplace, and they'll provide somebody with a viable future."

Rafael will graduate high school at the end of the year.

He says despite some slight nerves he feels lucky to have the cafe training behind him and would one day like to become a baker.

"At Tradeblock ... I learnt how to cook, how to prepare food, I love making coffee."

"Deaf, hearing, everybody is welcome."

5 min read
Published 23 September 2019 at 7:09pm
By Jennifer Scherer