I Love Coffee, South Africa’s first Deaf-run coffee shop will officially open its doors in Cape Town in June. In partnership with Tribe Coffee, the entirely Deaf-run coffee shop launches with the aim of breaking communication barriers between the hearing and the Deaf. The shop offers an experience unlike any other, where customers are encouraged to engage verbally as well as visually with the Deaf staff, patrons are given the opportunity to be taught rudimentary sign language to place their orders and engage with the staff. The idea is the brainchild of social entrepreneur, Gary Hopkins who explains: “It’s more than just coffee shop space, it’s about a mind-shift and correcting the perception that Deaf people are disabled, Deafness isn’t a disease and should be recognized as a culture, much like American, Italian, South African etc.” Of the estimated 2-million disabled people in South Africa, 500,000 are classified as ‘Deaf’ and almost 1.5-million South Africans are considered to be ‘hearing-impaired’ which means that 4.5% of South Africa’s total population is Deaf.

While South Africa recognises 11 official verbal and written languages, it has yet to recognise South African Sign Language (SASL) – the visual language that is common across all South African Deaf people. This in turn has deeper social implications as it limits opportunities for tertiary education and results in high unemployment amongst the Deaf. Employment is one of the biggest challenges the Deaf face in South Africa – this is evident in light of the fact that currently 70% of persons who are hearing impaired are unemployed.  Hopkins adds: “Most people know very little about Deaf culture and even fewer understand it, we are hoping that by bringing an ordinary everyday experience like ordering a cup of coffee or a toasted sandwich with the use of sign language or by service expectation being met, we can bring a better understanding about the capability of the Deaf. “The i love coffee brand aims to be a cool, fun and engaging and is not out to garner a sympathy vote,” he says.

“We specifically chose a fun name and incorporated Deaf language into the brand by replacing the heart symbol with the SASL sign for ‘I Love You’.” “We have had incredible support from Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, who most don’t know has a Deaf sister as well as The National Institute for the Deaf who has assisted us with the recruitment of staff and are receiving barista training from Tribe Coffee,” he says. “DeafSA, the non-profit organisation who acts as the national research, information and community action organization on behalf of more than 600,000 South Africans who are culturally and linguistically Deaf have assisted tremendously in bringing this project to life.” On choosing the venue, Hopkins points out that the decision to launch in a gym in Claremont was a conscious one with a long-term view to expand the national footprint of the brand as well as having to launch on a very tight budget.

“This entire project has been self-funded with the assistance of some really great partners and as we get closer to opening we have other activities that will assist us in getting the brand off the ground,” Hopkins adds. “We are running a crowd-funding campaign and fundraising event so we are able to purchase more equipment.”

“Our world’s currently feel so separate,” says, Deaf born, Jessica Botha who is in her third year at UCT studying a Bachelor of Science, Sociology and Environmental & Geographical Science. “We define Deafness as a way of life and not a disability. We aren’t blocked in living but only the language barrier between hearing and non-hearing people.” Botha adds: “If hearing people learn to sign, they gain the skill of communicating in a different way, increased interaction between the Deaf and hearing community will make our world more inclusive.”

“It is our goal to create more opportunities for job placement of visually impaired persons in the open labour market,” he adds. Hopkins, says that the coffee shop and I love coffee brand will help change how the world engages with the Deaf – view the video here I Love Coffee will be officially open for business on the 6th of June and based at X-Body Fitness, The Mews, Draper Street, Claremont.