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In France it's being talked of as a breakthrough in helping the deaf. A restaurant where most of the staff have hearing difficulties was opened recently in Paris as part of a drive to provide work for disabled people and to improve their contact with the public at large. Customers are encouraged to use sign language to order their meals and the menus contain illustrations of the relevant hand movements. So far the Café Signes or Signs Café is doing great business and as Alisdair Sandford reports from Paris it is helping to break down barriers between people who can and can't hear.

It seems like any other busy Parisian bistro at lunchtime. There's the constant bustle as diners come and go and waiters sweep through the kitchen door to serve tables inside and outside on the pavement. Usually you might expect to hear more noises above the general hubbub - a cry from the kitchen to say the food's ready or from customers calling for more wine - but here there's little point in shouting out loud - the waiters and waitresses won't hear you because they're deaf.

Valerie explains how she greets the customers and shows them the menu - she's profoundly deaf and began working as a waitress at Café Signes when it opened in April and she enjoys trying to encourage people to use sign language to order their meals.

It's better that deaf people and those who can hear mix together. I like working here. It's difficult communicating but people do try to use signs and it works - we do understand. And if we don't understand they can write it down.

A friend tells me there is a new place and people who don't talk, who don't hear work. The first time I came by curiosity, after I like it because I come back.

Like many customers Malika tries to place her order using sign language, part of the French signing alphabet is drawn on the back of the staffs' t-shirts and there's guidance to help people ask for certain dishes and say basic phrases like please and thank you. Francine D'Ord [phon.] help set up the project and works closely with the staff.

We put on each table there's a little leaflet where we give the main signs to be able to give their orders. So they try and sometimes it's - they enjoy it, sometimes it's funny, sometimes they laugh about it because it's not so easy. I taught and I make sign with my hand that it is not orthodox, it's not the real language of sign but sometimes it's okay.

So you've got some red wine in front of you tell me how you ordered that.

With a guide of the café we have help but the difficulty is when you see a sign in a picture is not easy really because there is a move and the picture is still. So it's easy to say the carafe but for me it's very difficult to mime red.

The leaflet given to customers also contains a little tongue in cheek guide on how to attract a deaf waiter's attention - wave your hand, touch their arm, tell your neighbour to pass on a message and so on. Perhaps the most practical way is to switch on the light above your table.

The kitchen workers, who are also deaf, let the servers know when a dish is ready via a pager which vibrates in their pocket. If communicating with customers becomes really difficult two members of staff who can hear are on duty to help. Even so working in a busy restaurant is a daunting step for these deaf people.

They were put in contact with the public and for the first time they had to overcome their fear, they were very shy and they feared they couldn't be understood by the customers. These are two different worlds and they don't communicate with each other usually and so in the café the two worlds can mix a bit and they can discover that the other person is not so different after all.

Café Signes also attracts a number of deaf customers. Maurice uses sign language to explain how he read about the restaurant in a local paper.

It's difficult in other bars, he says, here it's easier, now I come twice a week to eat.

The restaurant was set up with a mixture of government funding and sponsorship. It opened three months ago expecting to serve about 30 meals a day, it's now serving 70. But Café Signes creator, Martine Lejeur Perry [phon.] says its success goes beyond mere figures.

Café Signes is a non-ghetto if you like - as much for the deaf as for the hearing. It's an opening toward the outside world. People see them, they exist, they have a job. There's still a very long road to travel for deaf people. Café Signes is a stepping stone for them but we need more. Companies should employ more deaf people, TV should do more programming for the deaf. There's a lot more to do.

Martine has more plans for the restaurant, with ideas for exhibitions from deaf artists and poem recitals in sign language. Local people are delighted with what it's done for the area so far.

Marie Chossais [phon.] who's lived nearby for more than 20 years says Café Signes has brought a dead street back to life and people get upset at weekends when it's closed.

The restaurant's certainly worked wonders for the deaf people it was designed primarily to help, according to Francine D'Ord.

They are more confident in themselves, all their lives they have been ignored in a way because people couldn't communicate with them and they have a relationship now with the local people and they say hello and recognise them in the street. So that's a big change for them.

As for my visit I did manage to order some chips by interlocking my fingers, as shown in the leaflet. Asking for a croques monsieur was harder but if you can't make the right sign a smile and eye contact with the waiter will help.

Alisdair Sandford reporting.

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