- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Shortly after it opened, the H Street Country Club bar switched from black napkins to white. It seems like a small change, but it has had a big impact for one group of customers.

“We recognize the majority of the people in our bar are hearing-impaired,” said owner Ricardo Vergara, whose business is near Gallaudet University, one of the largest schools for the deaf in the nation. “They’re a big part of this side of town. So we make adjustments when they’re around.”

And the napkin color? Deaf customers now have a simple way of communicating their orders by writing them on the white paper.

Dozens of restaurants and bars along the District’s H Street Corridor - in the city’s up-and-coming Atlas District slightly northeast of Union Station - strive to reach out to the deaf community as a growing source of business. Many managers learn sign language, or hire bartenders, servers and bouncers who do. Turning on closed captions for televisions, cranking up the music and brightening the overhead lights also help.

For them, it’s just good business. For the deaf community, it means much more.

“I think H Street is incomparable,” said deaf customer Brittany Comegna, who was born and raised in Baltimore. “The bartenders make an effort to learn basic signs, the employees understand how to handle deaf patrons, and the establishments … actively try to improve its services and settings to better accommodate deaf consumers.”

Gallaudet officials also have taken note of the efforts.

“We are very pleased with the H Street business community as a whole with the level of interest and commitment they have shown to the deaf community,” said Sam Swiller, associate director of real estate and economic development at Gallaudet. “We are constantly exploring ways to improve the shopping and dining experiences of our constituents.”

The Country Club is one of the strongest examples of that commitment. Bartenders there have learned to sign bar basics, such as “beer” and “wine.” Brighter lights throughout make it easier to see sign language and read lips.

“The H Street Country Club is the hot spot right now,” Ms. Comegna said.

Country Club management estimates that as many as 25 percent of its customers are associated with Gallaudet, either as older students and alumni, or faculty and staff.

“They like the bar, they enjoy coming here, they certainly have helped our business. We appreciate them coming out,” Mr. Vergara said.

Targeting deaf customers has become essential for restaurants and bars along the H Street Corridor.

The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and H Street Main Street recently used grant money to offer free sign-language classes to owners and staff at neighborhood restaurants and bars, which Mr. Swiller called “highly effective.”

“The newfound signing skills of the participating businesses will go along way to making our students and staff feel comfortable and, in turn, generate greater and repeat business,” he said.

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