YANGON, Myanmar – At The Able cafe in downtown Yangon, there is plenty of conversation, yet it is almost completely silent.
The new sign-language book cafe is the first of its kind in Myanmar, and staffed entirely by deaf people.
Founder Ko Myo Kyaw Thu, 30, is hoping it will spark positive change. He wants to raise awareness of disabilities, “inspire others to start similar businesses” and “empower inclusivity.”
The initiative was a long time in the making, but its opening came in time for the International Day of Sign Languages on Sept. 23.
“I’ve been discussing for a long time about establishing something to help people with disabilities. I talk to everyone I meet about my idea,” said Ko Myo Kyaw Thu.
Ko Myo Kyaw Thu works as a consultant with international organizations but after seeing difficulties that people with disabilities experience while working in mainstream environments, he wanted to do something to help.
After talking to friends who run online bookshops, they found a space and some discounted furniture and opened The Able.
Currently, six deaf people are employed full time in the establishment.
According to a 2014 census, there are 670,000 deaf people across the country and no record of the percentage of deaf people who are currently employed.
They are mostly working in the hospitality industry as well as in laundries and as cleaners, and according to the research of Yadana Aung, who is also deaf and a teacher and researcher for the deaf community, there are also some bank and computer employees as well as mechanics.
Yadana Aung collects employment discrimination testimonies within communities of those with disabilities, which include reports of working more overtime than able-bodied people, lower pay, and humiliation, among other problems.
“I like working here as all staff members are deaf,” The Able’s chef Ko Ye Lwin Oo tells EFE, adding that he has experienced two workplaces where deaf people were subjected to “degrading” treatment when communicating.
The 33-year-old says he has had a love of cooking since he watched shows about it on television when he was 11. He learned more through working in a hotel and watching YouTube clips about bar-tending.
Ko Myo Kyaw Thu said while in the future the team would like to get funding, for now they are enjoying developing the business model and helping the deaf community.
The team aims to open more branches around Yangon and believe the awareness of people with disabilities will spread along with their business model.
There are more than 300 different sign languages used by the world’s estimated 72 million deaf people, more than 80 percent of whom are from developing countries, according to the World Federation of the Deaf.