GAZA, Palestine: A restaurant run and staffed by deaf people opened for business in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, helped by Palestinians seeking to build a more inclusive society where people with disabilities can realise their full potential.
The stylish Atfaluna restaurant near Gaza port stands out in a city with few facilities for the disabled. Waiters and cooks use sign language, guests point to selections from the menu and what ensues is a spontaneous form of communication that organisers hope will break down bias and barriers.
"Deaf people have determination and there are no worries except when it comes to communication, the language problem. At first we may get translators to help us with the speaking clients," supervisor Ayat Imtair told Reuters in sign language.
After six months of training with her staff, she was confident the service would go smoothly.
"This is a call on the community, and a working chance for the deaf to help them engage with the community," she signed.
Twenty years ago Palestinian attitudes to deaf people were negative, said Naeem Kabaja, director of Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in Gaza, which runs the restaurant.
"It was perceived by many as a mental disability. But we've been able to change that and it has since improved, through our work, the spread of sign language, activities by the deaf and raising public awareness about this disability," he said.
Still, Kabaja said, many of the deaf themselves tend to shy away from engagement with broader society, afraid of communications obstacles and expecting little understanding.
The staff of 12 were enthusiastic on opening day.
"We're excited. There might be some difficulty at the start but we will overcome it. We're all trained in lip-reading and that will help us take orders," said cook Niveen, preparing a dish of spicy chicken balls.
The restaurant was established with help from the Drosos Foundation of Switzerland to promote income generation by the deaf in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is over 25 percent.
About 1 percent of Gaza's 1.6 million people suffer from total or near-total deafness. They can attend school up to ninth grade but have no opportunity to go on to a university education in the territory, said Sharhabeel Al-Zaeem of Atfaluna.
"Unfortunately they have to leave Gaza for that," Al-Zaeem said. "We are doing out utmost to make special classes for the deaf in universities. We are liaising with different universities to see if there is a chance for the deaf to get places.