Causes Week: At this cafe, it's all about enjoying the silence and listening with one's heart

Participants having conversations at the second edition of Deaf Cafe, held in June this year, by non-profit social enterprise Etch Empathy.
Participants having conversations at the second edition of Deaf Cafe, held in June this year, by non-profit social enterprise Etch Empathy. PHOTO: ETCH EMPATHY

SINGAPORE - It is like any other cafe experience, with coffee and conversation.

But there is a twist: while there may be conversations, hardly any word is spoken aloud.

Welcome to the "Deaf Cafe", a concept developed by non-profit social enterprise Etch Empathy.

During the sessions, cafe goers can communicate only through writing or sign language. The tagline of these cafe sessions? "Bask in silence and listen with your heart".

Etch Empathy aims to help people to understand others, through programmes that let them step into the shoes of those who may be less privileged, aged, deaf or visually impaired.

It will hold its third edition of "Deaf Cafe", in collaboration with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Federation Singapore, at the Coffee Bandits in Henderson Road on Nov 26.

The first edition at the National Youth Council was held earlier this year, with about 50 people taking part. The second was at the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.

Featured in The Straits Times Causes Week last December, Etch Empathy has conducted programmes such as deaf simulation exercises where participants have to perform daily tasks while wearing noise-cancelling headsets.

It also runs a Human library, where people - for instance those with visual impairments or former convicts - act as "books" and share their stories with "readers". There are 12 to 14 "books" for each library session, with about seven sessions held so far.

There will be changes to the sessions, such as by having them in a dark room to "remove prejudices", said Etch Empathy co-founder Aaron Yeoh. "Audiences hear the stories of these people, then only when the lights come on, they realise their storytellers are blind," he said.

Mr Yeoh said the Causes Week feature last year helped Etch Empathy to get more enquiries from schools and corporate companies interested in their programmes. It has seen a 20 per cent increase in the schools it has reached out to this year, compared with last year.

Etch Empathy currently caters to more people, from eight people previously to more than 50 people a session, said Mr Yeoh, adding it also has a wider range of activities now.

One new programme is the Blind Cooking project started in July, to teach the visually impaired how to prepare meals.

While the project currently caters to three individuals, it will expand to 12 next year. One of the three people in the first batch will become the head chef to lead the next team of cooks.

One of them, 21-year-old Singapore Management University undergraduate Joshua Tseng, said he took part as he was "frustrated".

He said: "No one I knew had the time, patience, or willingness to teach a person who couldn't see how to cook.

"I knew I wasn't the only person with vision impairment in Singapore who was having this problem. Cooking is such an essential skill to independent living."

For more information on Etch Empathy's upcoming programmes, visit https://www.facebook.com/etchsg/

Causes Week returns this year for the sixth time, from Dec 4 to 10. Anyone with a story or cause to share can write in to be featured in The Straits Times.