Waitress serving a cup of coffee in cafe

At a time when restaurant labor shortages and high turnover rates have restaurateurs wondering about staffing security, Chris Soukup, CEO of nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf, is eager to provide resources that can also help change the 70 percent unemployment and underemployment rate among Deaf Americans. One solution comes through the CSD Social Venture Fund, whose first initiative has been to support San Francisco’s first Deaf-owned pizzeria, Mozzeria. Soukup shared with Restaurant Insider the misconceptions facing Deaf employment, and the ways restaurateurs and business owners can partner with this labor force.

Tell me a bit about the Deaf workforce as it pertains to unemployment. What are the statistics? The biggest problem Deaf people face is negative perceptions about their capabilities and worth. You can see this reflected in the Bureau of Labor and Statistics 2017 numbers, which show an 80 percent non-participation rate among people with disabilities. That’s only 20 percent of people who are actually working or actively trying to get a job, while the other 80 percent are prevented or discouraged from doing so. You can imagine that after facing widespread discrimination, many people have simply given up trying. Many skilled Deaf people face additional challenges with communication that many employers balk at addressing, when accommodations and solutions are readily available. This is wrong.

Chris Soukup CSD
Chris Soukup

What is a challenge that Deaf employees find themselves facing at jobs, regardless of industry? Communication is the most obvious challenge, with so much information that is learned incidentally within earshot. This prevents them from learning the ropes and politics at their workplace, closing off many pathways to career advancement. Discrimination also comes into play, as many people cannot imagine a Deaf person managing a team of hearing employees, and some hearing employees would not easily accept having a Deaf person as their superior. Fortunately, through our partnership with U.S. Business Leadership Network, we’re working to identify companies that are inclusive of Deaf people and people with disabilities. Many companies are waking up to the high impact that these individuals bring to their workplace.

What specifically about restaurant work can be difficult for Deaf employees? Nothing in particular. There’s nothing that Deaf people can’t do in restaurant work. You may be thinking about the typical representation of a restaurant kitchen, with staffers communicating by shouting at one another above all the noise. That’s certainly one way to conduct your communication culture in the kitchen. There are other ways, and Mozzeria has done supremely well in developing their own communication culture at their restaurant—they do it so well that we want to replicate it and bring it to other cities through the franchise. There are also benefits that being Deaf confers upon us. We have a highly attuned visual and tactile sense, and this can be advantageous in the kitchen and elsewhere within the restaurant environment.

What misconceptions do employers typically have about Deaf employees? That they are somehow less capable, or only suited for certain types of jobs. Deaf people can do anything they want to, and are passionate about. The more assertive among your Deaf employees may make their goals clear to you, but sometimes you may want to ask where they want to end up, so you two can create pathways for their advancement.

What specific changes could a restaurant make to be more accommodating to both Deaf employees and Deaf guests? To start, bring a few Deaf people onboard to train their staff in ASL. The interaction between your staff and the trainers will go so much further than learning a language, and will forever alter your staff’s perceptions about Deaf people. Where you go from there is up to you.

Restaurant staff management just got easier, employee turnover just became a thing of the past.

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Can you provide a few examples of an employer working well with a Deaf employee to create a thriving work environment? One need only look at the federal sector to see how this is done. The federal government has the largest Deaf workforce of any organization in America. That many Deaf people aspire to work in government is telling. We have a program called CSD Works where we identify and cultivate relationships with employers that have proven track records of Deaf inclusion, and are working to transform and onboard new employers to the idea that Deaf workers will greatly benefit their companies and organizations.

Pizza chef and business owner

What about in restaurants? You can see that there are more and more stories about Deaf people who have made it in the restaurant business. There are Deaf chefs, restaurateurs, baristas. The visibility and number of these stories is growing. We want more. We need more. People need to see that there are living examples out there, so they, too, can feel heartened in pursuing their passions and the development of their skills.

Why is it important for the CSD to establish a Social Venture Fund, and support Deaf-owned businesses like Mozzeria? The CSD Social Venture Fund has been a long time in coming. Back in the mid 2000s, we envisioned a world where Deaf people would never again feel like they weren’t very much a part of it. Since that time, CSD has established programs the address gaps in education, employment, and policy, such as CSD Learns and CSD Works. We always knew that one of the most impactful ways to hit all those notes was to create economic opportunities for Deaf people. It’s always hard to prove your worth with someone who doesn’t understand or empathize with what it’s like to live in your shoes. With the dismally low workforce participation rates among Deaf people, we figured that if nobody else hires Deaf people, we’ll support Deaf businesses in scaling up and hiring more Deaf people. That’s essentially the spirit and attitude of the Fund, in that we’ve changed our own attitude from one where we’re waiting to be helped to a proactive stance that says while we’re waiting for the rest of the world to catch up, we’ll take care of our own.

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Meghan is an award-winning journalist and content marketing manager who lives to tell stories. Her favorites include highlighting all things restaurants, from front-of-house hospitality to back-of-house grit. When she's not writing about them, you can find her eating her way through Providence and Boston searching for inspiration with a rye Old Fashioned in hand.