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Stories Untold: Central America's First Deaf Café

Picture of Charlotte Peet
Commissioning Editor
Updated: 10 May 2018
In the heart of Nicaragua, there’s a businessman with a huge grin on his face – Spanish-born philanthropist Antonio Piero – and he’s on a mission to prove that a modest smile is all it takes to make a life-changing impact. Our video team went on a trip to his cafe in Granada, to find out how.

Ever seen a contagious smile? The kind of warm, friendly and accepting smile that can be caught in a flash and spread like wildfire – it’s a universal language that everyone understands, and a positive force that breaks through barriers.

Slowly, the smile is beginning on catch on. In a country that remains the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, hardship looms, with an estimated 45% of the population living well below the poverty line. Throw in soaring unemployment figures and a non-existent job market for people with disabilities and you have children facing some pretty desperate times.

For Antonio, the solution was simple: open a cafe where the workers are 100% deaf, introduce the public to their world and invite them to spend a lunchtime walking in their shoes. Tucked behind the Calle Real Xalteva entrance in a beautiful, large colonial building and leafy courtyard, Cafe of Smiles or the Cafe de la Sonrisas as it’s better known, is the brain-child of Antonio’s successful business model – the first cafe in the Americas, and the 4th in the world to be run by deaf-mute people.

Overcoming obstacles

Inclusion is the special on the menu, peppered with a kind local language. After receiving an envelope of earplugs, guests gesture at wall diagrams covered with images of sign language and menu-pictures to order, as well as communicate their specific dietary requirements; thanks to Piero’s nifty ordering system. A panel pasted on the table bearing six commonly requested items, makes for smooth ordering. Beyond that, a willingness to try and a pinch of humour are all that are needed to join in.

To help further Antonio’s initiative, here are four apps that will help you communicate in American Sign Language.

ASL Coach (free)

This app is designed to teach beginners to sign the alphabet and count up to nine. It won the Best Web/Mobile Product of 2016 at the DC Innovation Awards and is available from the iTunes store.

Sign Lang for Beginners (free)

With images similar to those found on the bright walls of Cafe of Smiles, the simple illustrations will teach you the common letters and basic American slang needed to make new friends. Available in the Google Play Store.

ASL Fingerspelling (US$3. 99)

If you’re looking to stretch your memory but have little time to spare, then this Android app is the one for you. The carefully designed algorithm makes reading finger spelling easy to remember.

Marlee Signs (Free)

Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin is sharing her message of inclusion and diversity by teaching the fundamentals of ASL. Available from the iTunes store, it has a handy ‘slow motion’ setting, allowing for a more in-depth viewing experience.