Pop-up cafés offer new skills for deaf

Pop-up cafes are helping people who are deaf or hard of hearing to get a foothold in the hospitality industry, reports Colin Cottell. 

Backed by funding from the Ford Motor Company, the initiative is being delivered by students from the University of Cologne in Germany, working in partnership with local café owners and organisations that support the deaf community. The students were inspired to act after seeing how difficult it was for deaf people to order lunch in a regular café.

Since the initiative began six months ago, seven pop-up events have taken place in cafes across Cologne, with 12 people from the deaf community employed as waiters and waitresses, serving more than 1,000 customers. Each event lasts for a day, with customers, many of whom are not deaf themselves, encouraged to order food and drink using sign language. 

After the opportunities have been advertised, candidates go through an interview, either face-to-face or via Skype, with one of the students, who are proficient in sign language. Each candidate is provided with a dedicated member of the student team.

Those who get to the next stage then receive training via video, which is followed by a test, which they must pass. Before starting work in a café they must also obtain a health and hygiene certificate. The waiters and waitresses, who are paid, receive on the job training based on their individual needs. 

Debbie Chennells is manager of the Ford Fund, Ford of Europe, the non-profit branch of the automaker, which provides a grant to the University of Cologne students as part of its 2017 Ford College Community Challenge. She says an advantage of the pop-up café initiative is that it provides a safe environment for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

“If you are deaf or hard of hearing and have never considered going into hospitality then you can come along and maybe gain a new skill set, develop your social skills, explore the possibilities and hopefully gain confidence,” she says. 

“It is more about focusing on ability rather than disability, and that is why we support it,” adds Chennells.

Having this on their CV, and also being able to demonstrate that they have the social skills to work in the hospitality sector “which is all about communication”, should also help impress potential employers, she says.

Feedback from those employed in the pop-up café has been positive, with one participant praising the employability aspects, as well as the fact that it gave her the opportunity to develop new skills – teaching non-deaf customers sign language. 

Chennells says the intention is to expand the initiative within Germany, with the hope of being able to grow it sufficiently so as to be able to employ people “on more of a full-time basis”.

There could also be opportunities to take it to other countries. “I am definitely going to reach out to deafness organisations in the UK,” Chennells says.


  1. Create a safe environment. This is important in building confidence among disadvantaged or marginalised groups, who may lack it in a ‘normal’ setting.
  2. Make sure you have the right resources in place to recruit and then support people, who may have specialist needs. 
  3. You don’t have to do it all yourself. By adopting a partnership approach you can tap into specialist skills and knowledge as well as resources from charities or support groups. Students and young people can also provide a lot of enthusiasm and raw energy.
  4. Involve the whole community. This creates a real buzz, gives extra confidence to those you are helping and raise awareness of the problem you are trying to address.

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