I Love Coffee – breaking down barriers between the hearing and the Deaf

“I Love Coffee is a coffee shop that breaks down barriers between the hearing and the Deaf. It’s more than a space. It’s about mindset. It’s about changing a view of a disability that it isn’t in fact a disability, but more of an opportunity, uncovering the wonderful world of the Deaf culture.” These are the powerful words of I Love Coffee founder Gary Hopkins who launched Cape Town’s first Deaf-run coffee shop.

This proudly South African social enterprise educates and employs Deaf youth to become baristas, chefs and all things hospitality. The organisation is impact focused, exclusively employing Deaf youth as baristas, chefs and kitchen staff.  This ensures not only their job readiness, but also sustained career development. The specialist skills training provided by I Love Coffee lays the foundation for a future career within the hospitality industry.

“It’s more than a space. It’s about mindset. It’s about changing a view of a disability that it isn’t in fact a disability, but more of an opportunity, uncovering the wonderful world of the Deaf culture.”

We chatted to Gary to find out about I Love Coffee’s origins, goals, impact and future.

A problem, a hunch, a solution

Gary is a problem solver by nature. When he discovered that around 80% of Deaf adults were unemployed, largely because our sign language is not recognised as an official language, he decided to find a solution.

He had a hunch that coffee would be an easy way to bridge the communication barrier − and he was right.  Since the first café opened in 2016, I Love Coffee has been making a huge impact on the communities it serves.

Like any good leader, Gary is humble enough to listen to and learn from his team.  “At the beginning, we thought our job was to teach Deaf people how to make coffee, but over the years the business has adapted as we have learnt from our staff,” he says.

Finding the right people

I Love Coffee holds regular Open Days, which enables potential trainees to see the staff working in all areas of the business and experience the training rooms. 

“From there we select candidates who recognise that I Love Coffee is a place of learning.  We don’t hire people who ‘just want a job’.  We employ staff who want to learn skills to empower themselves and make a difference in their communities,” says Gary.

The training programme

“Our trainers not only teach hard skills, but they also serve as role models so that our trainees learn the soft skills to enter the open work force.”

“At school, most Deaf learners are taught by hearing teachers who aren’t fluent in Sign Language. Their ability to learn is limited to how well their teacher can sign.  We break that cycle in that the majority of our training is in Sign Language,” explains Gary 

Barista training is the first step as it’s a great way for the trainees to build confidence and learn how to interact with customers. They’re assessed after three months and those who show interest and are suitable are given the opportunity to move into other areas of the business, such as the kitchen or roastery.

“Our trainers not only teach hard skills, but they also serve as role models so that our trainees learn the soft skills to enter the open work force.  As much as we try to hire everyone ourselves, our longer-term view is to train Deaf staff for other companies,” he says.   

The café experience

How to order a cappuccino using South African Sign Language.

“People are always surprised by how many ways there are to communicate with a Deaf person,” observes Gary, adding that the rule of thumb is to always make and maintain good eye contact. 

In the cafés, there are various ways for customers to communicate with staff. These include point-to menus, writing their order down or using wooden blocks etched with various orders, such as “cappuccino”. 

TVs also play short videos that teach customers basic signs for coffee and tea, as well as please and thank you.  “We’ve found that customers love to learn to sign and soon progress from signing “flat white” to signing their names and communicating with our staff,” says Gary.

He adds that “it’s also important to note that we don’t believe in taking someone from a marginalised community and putting them in a marginalised job.  All our cafes are fully integrated so customers are free to interact with Deaf or hearing staff.  Even our hearing staff members have learnt to sign.  Most customers tell us they view us no differently to any other coffee shop in terms of service and quite enjoy the quietness of our spaces.”

Employment challenges for Deaf people

Asked about the challenges deaf people face when looking for employment, Gary shares that only one out of three Deaf South Africans is functionally literate. This is due to the lack of access to quality education.

He notes that deaf learners have the potential to be educated equally. Unfortunately, many receive primary and secondary education in technical subjects only, which excludes them from tertiary education.

“Society’s poor perception combined with general lack of self-efficacy create barriers to employment.  There are many other reasons but until more Deaf schools take on Deaf teachers, employment will always be an uphill battle,” he says.

What Gary wants employers to know about hiring Deaf people

“The biggest myth we need to dispel is that you need to hire an interpreter if you want to employ Deaf staff. Deaf people live most of their lives without an interpreter at their side, so the notion that they need one at work is absurd,” he says. 

“Wherever we place staff we offer sensitisation training as a service to break the ice, so to speak.  This includes ensuring that the work environment is adapted within reason for a Deaf person – clearing lines of sight, for example – and teaching the basics around Deaf culture and some sign language.” 

“The biggest myth we need to dispel is that you need to hire an interpreter if you want to employ Deaf staff.”

Gary stresses that Deaf staff should work in inclusive environments and that companies looking to fill a sheltered employment position at the back of a factory should not hire a Deaf person.

“Deaf people are keen workers and eager to learn.  If you hire hearing staff with limited education, there’s no reason to exclude Deaf people on the same grounds,” he says.

Looking forward

Visit I Love Coffee at 103 Garfield Road, Claremont , Cape Town.

So what’s next for this impressive social enterprise? “2021 is the year we move our training up a gear or two. We are also hoping our SETA accreditation comes through,” explains Gary, adding:  “We have a stronger focus on manufacturing and this year we will be growing the wholesaling of coffee beans and certain food lines.  Last year we were selected to be part of Zero Project (zeroproject.org) which helps business with a focus on people living with disabilities replicate their impact in other parts of the world.  All in all a very interesting year lies ahead of us.

Impact in action

“The more we understood Deaf culture − the social challenges facing the Deaf and the barriers to integration − the greater our impact has been. Overcoming the language barrier is no longer our biggest challenge.  Instead of dealing with the symptoms of the problem, we empower our staff to address the root of the problem in their communities.

 “Deafness isn’t a disability. It’s a culture and a community. This is I Love Coffee.” These are the first words you see upon opening I Love Coffee’s website and they sum up the ethos of the brand and its impact perfectly. Deafness is a culture and a community, and so is I Love Coffee.