- 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.

It also creates a unique rapport between staff and patrons.

A few doors down from the Country Club is the Rock N Roll Hotel, a bar and live-music venue. Bartenders there have learned the sign for the drink Jagermeister, which looks like “deer antlers,” bar manager Ryan Ruck said. They also have signs for Blue Motorcycle and Blue Hawaiian drinks. Sometimes they even make up new signs, just to get the point across.

“It’s more about just communicating with people,” Mr. Ruck said. “That’s bartending in a nutshell.”

If signing proves too complicated, deaf customers often rely on their smartphones to type messages to bartenders or servers.

“Some of these guys have got some serious game,” Mr. Ruck said. “It’s kind of impressive.”

Rock N Roll Hotel also will turn up the music so deaf patrons can feel the vibrations and dance to it.

“They come here because they like it and we treat them cool,” Mr. Ruck said. “They’re certainly an integral part of any given night.”

At the Queen Vic, owner Ryan Gordon said bars and restaurants have to be “deaf friendly” to compete on H Street.

When deaf customers come in, he makes an effort to give them an opportunity to read his lips or communicate in a way that makes them comfortable. He also is quick to offer free samples, if the customers can’t understand his description of the drinks.

“I can describe what a certain beer is like to someone who is not deaf,” Mr. Gordon said. “But if the person can’t read my lips or can’t hear me, the best thing to do is just to let them sample it or try it out.”

He keeps a pen and paper on hand, and makes sure the television closed captions are on.

“I have a passion to make sure that community stays happy,” he said

On the weekends, the Queen Vic gets as many as 25 deaf customers a night.

“They’re our community,” Mr. Gordon said.

Sticky Rice, a nearby sushi restaurant, commonly hires four to five employees who are deaf. They work as hosts and bartenders and at the sushi bar.

“They’ve taught me some sign language, and I’ve taught them some sushi skills,” co-owner John Yamashita said.

Mr. Yamashita estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of his customers are hearing-impaired.

“It seems like all the bars we have on H Street have adapted to their needs,” he said.

In turn, the deaf community has proved to be among their most loyal clientele.

“It’s an awesome dynamic for us and the whole H Street area,” he said.

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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