At the root of Deaf Can! Coffee is the belief that Deaf people can do anything and lack nothing, even though we don’t hear with our ears. Society however doesn’t always agree and Deaf youth often face a negative stigma in their environment that creates a L-A-C-K in their life by excluding them and preventing access to Language, Affirmation, Community and Knowledge.
To address this, a group of Deaf teen boys from Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf (Kingston, Jamaica) were taken on a field trip to meet Evelyn Clarke, a Deaf coffee farmer in Top Hill, St. Elizabeth. Clarke is a Deaf person proud of his Sign Language, Affirmed in his Deaf identity, Integral in his Community and very Knowledgeable in the art of growing and roasting coffee. With his inspiration and challenge, the teen students began roasting, packaging and selling coffee. Then they began brewing the coffee and a few months later opened up a small coffee shop at their school. Out of this was born the social enterprise Deaf Can! Coffee that trains students at the school and also operates in the public space via a mobile coffee shop, and one day soon we may even have a full-time shop!
Deaf Can! Coffee in Kingston, Jamaica, is a Deaf-run roaster and mobile coffee shop that operates out of the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf. Blake Widmer, who cofounded Deaf Can! with his wife. Tashi Widmer, says they hope to open a brick-and-mortar location in the future.
For now, several of the Deaf baristas who’ve completed a coffee-training program alternate shifts at the nearby Café Vita. Early on, when the manager at Café Vita wanted to communicate with Deaf baristas, she’d ask Widmer to interpret. Now the Deaf and hearing employees at Café Vita use the WhatsApp messenger on their phones to communicate directly.
When I Skype with Widmer and several of Deaf Can!’s employees, they were excited to share how well the concept works in challenging local preconceptions of Deaf people. “A lot of times people are shocked to see us doing something so professionally,” signs barista and baker Andreen Smith while Widmer interprets. “We use a visual menu. I take their order on a Square tablet and people find that attitudes are changing.”
Of course, miscommunications can happen when customers don’t know coffee terms. Smith recalls hearing a customer who wasn’t expecting his espresso to be so small. “The guy thought I was cheating him,” she says. “He thought it was a sample. I pulled it up on my phone and suggested trying an Americano. I just had to use a visual menu to teach him the difference between an Americano or a latte.”
Before we sign off, Deaf Can!’s employees teach me the sign for coffee: One hand holds steady while the other pantomimes grinding coffee beans in a circular motion—visually captured in Deaf Can!’s logo.
However you say it, coffee serves as a universal language.