BeanScene Magazine

The Tradeblock Café signs a future

From the November 2013 issue.
The Tradeblock Café signs a future

The Tradeblock Café is reaching out to customers one sign at a time, with staff from the Victorian College for the Deaf.

It’s a quiet weekday morning when a customer walks into TheTradeblock Café in Melbourne. She smiles at the barista behind the counter, and lifts her hands to make an ‘L’ shape. The barista nods and returns the smile, and without a word being exchanged, begins making the latte the customer has just ordered. 

The barista behind the counter is a Year 12 student at the Victorian College for the Deaf. The customer is not deaf, but has learned the Auslan (Australian Sign Language) sign for latte thanks to the café’s new iPad app that shows short videos of Auslan signs of typical coffee orders.

This opportunity for deaf and hearing impaired students to communicate with hearing customers is a new initiative by the Victorian College for the Deaf. The café introduced the program just last April.

“Language is not a barrier here. This technology enables hearing people to easily communicate with the deaf,” says Amanda Joyce, Café Manager and teacher at the Victorian College of the Deaf. “It encourages the hearing customers to step into the same space with the deaf students and start a conversation. It’s also a confidence booster for the students and it’s spreading the word about the language of Auslan.”

The Tradeblock Café app is free to download from the Apple store. It lists a menu of the café’s food and drink items and courtesy signs to use, including options such as ‘takeaway’ and ‘hot coffee’.

“It’s just like going overseas and travelling. People learn a few basic words of a different language to get by, and they can do the same here,” says Amanda.

The not-for-profit café, now in its fifth year of operation, is open four days a week during the school term. Year 11 and 12 Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) students are the core of the café’s operation. They work around the clock to ensure the pastries are cooked, the eggs are ready, and the coffee machine is ready to go.

Amanda says the café’s initiation came about after a greater desire to equip the students with life skills that would make them more employable after leaving school.

“No matter how much work experience we gave the students, by the end of year 12 we still thought they were lacking essential employability skills. We wanted to make an impact in this area so we decided to developed this café project which we are very proud of,” says Amanda. “A café environment allows the students to develop general employability skills, so whether or not they continue a career in the hospitality field, upon completion of their two-year training they will have lots of transferrable skills that can be applied in all aspects of their life.”

As with the launch of any business, Amanda says the project took lots of planning and organisation to get off the ground. This included submitting plans to the health department, managing a budget, and working around the barriers of design in a heritage-listed building. “First we set up a pilot project with just a coffee machine on a desk in a classroom, just to gauge how popular the idea might be,” she says.

The pilot proved a success, and translated into The Tradeblock Café thanks to a grant from Newsboys Foundations and an award from the National Australian Bank, which contributed toward building the kitchen space. The school then received a substantial grant from the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, which it used to fund the iPad app.

Amanda says the café has become more than just a venue serving coffee – it’s a hub for the deaf community.

“The Victorian College of the Deaf is iconic in Melbourne. It’s a place like no other. It’s like hallow ground for the deaf community across the generations. The deaf community are always welcomed back here, and we wanted that same community vibe here at the café,” says Amanda.

Amanda says the café similarly helps bridge the gap between the deaf community and the hearing community. “We want to provide that interface with the hearing community to be able to integrate with the deaf community. To do so through coffee is such a happy combination,” she says.

Many of the students who first step into The Tradeblock Café are not familiar with a coffee machine. Some don’t even drink it, but Amanda says the authentic business environment is key to building skills employers look for.

“The students develop literacy and numeracy skills, they’re exposed to money transfers and a cash register,” says Amanda. “These are things they find daunting at first, but only because they haven’t been exposed to them before. Most importantly, they develop life skills and work experience that can set them up for employment after school.”

For many deaf people in Victoria, employment is a struggle. Amanda says employers are often reluctant to hire deaf or hearing-impaired people because they are concerned with their different communication skills.

“Hearing teenagers find it difficult to get a part-time job with so much competition in the field. Add deafness to it and it’s even more difficult for those teenagers to gain any sort of employment,” she says.

The café also runs an adult training program for ex-students who are interested in hospitality. They train for six months and complete a hospitality certificate or barista qualification. Thankfully, Amanda says some ex-students have gone on to work at MadCap and Ucan cafés, businesses with a focus on providing flexible working arrangements. However, outside of these social enterprises, Amanda says the majority of café owners are reluctant to employ the deaf.

To read the aricle in full, see the October issue of BeanScene. Click here to subscribe

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