Coffee by sign language: how tech and coffee are coming together to support the deaf

Working as a barista might not seem like an option for the deaf, but for Herold Hlophe, his hearing impairment is no obstacle. Thanks to a simple design solution, the coffee bar at which he works allows customers to place their order through a sign langua

Working as a barista might not seem like an option for the deaf, but for Herold Hlophe, his hearing impairment is no obstacle. Thanks to a simple design solution, the coffee bar at which he works allows customers to place their order through a sign language menu.

Olga and Herold with an interviewer from eNCA news

Olga and Herold with an interviewer from eNCA news

The bar is the in-house coffee bar at the Bryanston branch of tech company Britehouse, and is a partnership with Ciro’s Blacksmith’s Coffee Movement. Herold and fellow barista Olga Masondo are graduates of the coffee company’s Barista Upliftment Programe, which works to train unemployed youth – some of whom, like Herold, are deaf – to become internationally accredited baristas. The movement is relatively new – and Britehouse are the first company to adopt a hearing-impaired graduate.

Fittingly for the tech company, the Britehouse coffee bar is also supported by an app through which staff members can reward each other for great work with a virtual currency of coffee beans that can be spent at the bar.

Herold and Olga with Scott Gibson, Group Executive of Digital Practice at Dimension Data Global

Herold and Olga with Scott Gibson, Group Executive of Digital Practice at Dimension Data Global

According to Emmeline Bester, Britehouse’s group CSI manager, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from the staff.

“Everyone is beyond excited. Staff can’t get enough of it. Herold is so friendly – he high fives people, gives a thumbs up, hugs people – he’s got this larger-than-life personality, and people walk out feeling happy, and humbled. Olga always goes the extra mile, and will make a great manager one day. As for myself, I can’t tell you what it’s done for me. It’s quite daunting to try signing, but I’m so inspired too, to learn so that I can communicate with the baristas properly.”

Herold demonstrates the sign for 'I love you'.

Herold demonstrates the sign for ‘I love you’.

Emmeline also hopes that more people will learn sign language through the initiative. Herold is trained to teach sign language and sign language cards are regularly posted at the coffee station and on the app. The coffee bar is where everyone converges, says Emmeline, and regular visits make it the perfect environment for learning a new language.

As well as uplifting the baristas, the coffee itself is also ethically sourced – Ciro offers three blends, including Fairtrade and organic options. As to the future, Ciro Junior Brand Manager, Garth Balabanoff says the programme is open to all their customers, and the plan is to roll the programme out to all the Britehouse locations in the next couple of months.

Kudos to Ciro and Britehouse. We can’t wait to see this expand to a coffee shop near us!