At Sign with Me, a cafe on the second floor of a building in central Tokyo, orders are given and taken without a word being spoken.
Customers and staff communicate in sign language, in writing or by running a finger over the menu. All of the staff, as well as the owner, are hearing impaired.
When people come to Sign with Me in Bunkyo Ward for the first time, some are surprised at being greeted in sign language and leave without placing an order. But with a growing clientele of repeat patrons, a typical day sees around 60 paying customers — including many non-Japanese.
Sign with Me is an example of a growing trend that has seen more disabled people performing jobs not traditionally offered them while being more active in society.
Owner Masahiro Yanagi opened Sign with Me in late 2011 hoping to create a workplace where people with hearing problems could work on their own.
Previously, Yanagi worked at an automaker’s research institute and at a company assisting people with disabilities in finding jobs. This experience drove home the huge challenges the disabled face in finding and maintaining work.
“I want to show that people with hearing problems can cater to customers if the conditions are right,” Yanagi said.
Kiyoko Okamoto, a senior member of Sign With Me’s staff, voiced satisfaction with her job. “It is easy to communicate with other people here, so I feel rewarded,” she said.
In Miyashita Park in Shibuya Ward, about 10 people with mental disabilities work at a mobile catering wagon, Shibuya Park Cafe, that sells sandwiches and coffee. These staff members interact with customers, clean and help with the cooking.
Shibuya Park Cafe began operations in January with the cooperation of the Shibuya Ward government under the initiative of Hirohito Irie, a restaurant manager eager to help the disabled find work.
“I hope the skills and experience acquired here will give them confidence and create the chance for them to do substantial work,” he said.
Irie’s endeavor appears to be working. Staff, including Shinobu Honda and Naoya Ogane, are brimming with confidence.
“I feel happy when thanked by customers,” Honda said.
Added Ogane: “I enjoy cleaning and also watching people come and go.”
The number of people with disabilities working for private-sector firms has been growing in recent years, with a little more than 380,000 on payrolls in 2012, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
In the past, most such workers were engaged in run-of-the-mill jobs not requiring advanced skills. In recent years, however, an increasing number have obtained jobs involving professional expertise, including accounting, information technology and nursing care work, according to Wingle Co., which provides employment-support service for the disabled.
Following a regulatory change that went into effect in April, companies with at least 50 employees are obliged to hire people with disabilities at the rate of at least 2 percent of their workforce, up from 1.8 percent previously.
Fumio Mitani, a public relations official at Wingle, said companies are increasingly eager to tap the skills of workers with disabilities, rather than hire such people merely to meet the minimum employment requirement.
“More and more companies come to seek advice about plans to employ people with disabilities as a real force,” Mitani said.