• With menus with vignettes depicting sign language, the cafe seeks to impose itself in Bogota as the first one of its kind for the deaf population./AFP
  • Deaf customers communicate through sign language at the "Sin Palabras" (Without Words) coffee bar in Bogota. /AFP

In Bogota, a bar for the deaf

lifestyle August 13, 2017 01:00

By Rodrigo Almonacid
Agence France-Presse

The waiters can’t hear, the floor pulsates for dancers and sign language translates the music videos



IT’S NOT yet dark, but the two girls sitting at a table in a Bogota bar flick on the lamp on their wooden table. That’s the signal to the bartender, in Colombia’s first-ever bar for the deaf, that they want a drink.

The Sin Palabras Cafe Sordo – No Words Deaf Cafe – is the first of its kind in the country, says Maria Fernanda Vanegas, one of three owners. 

It’s located in the trendy Chapinero neighbourhood of the Colombian capital, surrounded by heavy metal, gay and reggae joints.

“Its aim is for us, people who can hear, to adapt to the deaf, and not the other way round, which is always the case,” says Vanegas.

The No Words Cafe has large screens playing music videos with the lyrics in sign language, and a dance floor that pulses with music to dancers who cannot hear it.

The menus are also translated into sign language and there are games such as Jenga or dominoes for customers to play.

Vanegas and her partners, Cristian Melo and Jessica Mojica, all have good hearing, but dreamed of opening a cafe for the more than 50,000 people in Bogota who do not.

Colombia has more than 455,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing people, according to the last census carried out in 2005.

People with normal hearing also frequent the bar, which is as noisy as any other in the capital. But the difference is that here, most of the talking is done with hands.

“It’s the first time I can feel the music,” says Erin Priscila Pinto, a first-time client enjoying a drink with her old friend, Carol Aguilera.

“That makes me really happy, because it’s the first time I can dance,” says the 23-year-old photography student.

All six waiters at the bar are deaf too, and even though many of the clients do not know sign language, they manage to convey their orders with gestures or by writing them down.

The bar also features small cards showing the basics of sign language for drinkers interesting in expanding their repertoire.

“I feel much more at ease with waiters who are deaf – everything is much easier,” says Pinto.

There is no need to actually speak in the bar. 

“Communicating with people with normal hearing can be a bit tricky at first because we don’t understand them,” says waiter Juan Carlos Villamil, 26. “But we get by somehow or other.”

Some new clients are surprised at first, but they end up getting the hang of sign language, he says.

The idea for the cafe came to the owners when they saw a group of deaf people having a coffee and asked them about their social lives. Now they want to open more bars like this across Colombia and elsewhere.

It’s not all plain sailing, however. 

Some “odious” guests occasionally take advantage of the waiters’ deafness to slip out without paying, or they smash glasses, says Vanegas.

The bar opened on June 16, and with its exhibitions, story-telling and other cultural performances by hearing-impaired artists, it’s already well on its way to becoming one of Bogota’s more hip watering holes at weekends.

“We want to show the world that deaf people have talent,” says Vanegas, as Pinto uses her phone to record a video to show her mother the bar where people listen with their eyes and speak with their hands.