Serving up lessons in empathy at the 'Deaf Cafe'

At the "Deaf Cafe", a concept developed by non-profit social enterprise Etch Empathy, participants use only sign language or writing to communicate, to better understand the lives of the deaf.
At the "Deaf Cafe", a concept developed by non-profit social enterprise Etch Empathy, participants use only sign language or writing to communicate, to better understand the lives of the deaf.PHOTO: ETCH EMPATHY

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", with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Federation Singapore, at Coffee Bandits in Henderson Road on Nov 26.

Featured in The Straits Times Causes Week last December, Etch Empathy has run programmes such as deaf simulation exercises.

It also runs a human library, where people act as "books" and share their stories with "readers". There will be changes to these 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 do they realise their storytellers are blind."

Mr Yeoh said the Causes Week feature last year helped Etch Empathy to get more inquiries from schools and companies interested in its 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 participant, 21-year-old Singapore Management University undergraduate Joshua Tseng, said: "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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Serving up lessons in empathy at the 'Deaf Cafe''. Print Edition | Subscribe