Menus in sign language and jobs for the hearing impaired are challenging discrimination against those with disabilities
Sun 29 Dec 2019 02.00 EST
Last modified on Sun 29 Dec 2019 02.05 EST
It’s not just the bright yellow walls that make the Abey Khao cafe in Islamabad’s Mughal Market stand out. The menu is in sign language, as is the English alphabet painted on the walls, along with the signs for “yes”, “no”, and “thank you”. Customers are encouraged to place their orders using sign language.
The Abey Khao – which means “Hey Eat” – cafe is the believed to the only fast food cafe in Pakistan set up and run by deaf people.
Sheikh Faizan Raza, 23, started Abey Khao as a street food cart, before opening the cafe in July 2016.
“The main reason behind this initiative is to provide an identity, a sense of independence and livelihood opportunities for the deaf community as we are discriminated against in Pakistan and treated as if we are sons of a lesser God,” says Raza.
Learning sign language to order food has proved popular among the younger customers who frequent the cafe. “Youngsters try to learn our language while they are waiting for their order to be prepared,” he says.
Not all of the community has been as accepting of the business, however, and Raza and his employees have faced some harassment. “When we are working or just standing outside [the cafe], people from nearby shops come and make fun of us,” he says.
Raza was inspired to open the business by his father, who is also hearing impaired. He has a small tailoring business where he mostly hires tailors from the deaf community.
Abey Khao’s chef, Muhammad Usman, has had many jobs, including stints in a textile company and in McDonald’s, but says he never felt he belonged until he started working at the cafe.
Usman says too many people in Pakistan think deaf people are only meant to do lowly jobs, such as sweeping and cleaning. “Some workers were too lazy to do their own work, so they would ask me to do it for them, just because I was deaf and could not complain,” says Usman, who loves his job at the cafe so much he encouraged a friend who is deaf to apply.
Like Usman, Naveed Ahmed had a few jobs before joining Abey Khao.
“We are like a family here,” says Ahmed. “In my previous jobs, I never felt that I had equality. They give me a job not because I was talented but treated me like they had sympathy for me because I am deaf. This is sad.”
There are no official statistics on the number of people with hearing impairments in Pakistan.
Amin Amir Andani, the external engagement manager of NOWPDP, a disability inclusion NGO, says accurate figures weren’t collected in the 2017 census as it did not include a column for people to state their disability. At the last minute the supreme court asked local authorities to add one, but by then it was too late because many districts, divisions and provinces had printed their forms.
According to the World Health Organization, 5% of the world’s population has some hearing loss.
Andani says the dismissive way that deaf people are treated by the state and society reflects “a broader stigma and lack of acceptance of disability in all forms in Pakistan”.
Things are beginning to change, though. All provincial governments are now required to introduce quotas for people with disabilities for government jobs, and earlier this year the Sindh provincial assembly introduced free travel for those with hearing impairments, and waived fees when applying for a driving licence.
The national assembly of Pakistan is also working on a bill to end discrimination against people with disabilities. The act has been drafted and is currently with the human rights committee. And the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf-led central government recently announced an insurance scheme for people living with a disability, under the Ehsaas programme, an initiative to reduce inequality in Pakistan.
However, the implementation of all these initiatives is poor, says Andani.
“There is job quotas in all provinces for the deaf and generally persons with disability but the laws rarely get implemented,” he says.
He added that when the government was pressed to provide more details about the insurance programme, “we did not get any positive response. This shows the seriousness of the state towards the community”.
While business hasn’t always been easy, and the small cafe barely makes a profit, the customers who fill it up speak glowingly of the place.
“Abey Khao offers a beautiful environment, hygienic food and a unique experience,” said Maya Ali, a university student. “It feels so good to see [people with disabilities] working.”
Another woman, Mrs Liaqat, enters the cafe, with two small boys. “I brought my son and nephew to eat here to show them how hard working and talented the deaf are,” she says. “There are too many misconceptions about the community in the country.”