IPOH: A wedding planner for almost a decade, Jacqie Teh decided that opening a restaurant employing the deaf and mute was his higher calling.
Calling it his fate, the 46-year-old said it was his dream since high school to open a business where these people with special needs could work and earn a proper living.
“When I was in Standard One, my school had several deaf and mute pupils in different classes and I started picking up sign language to get along with them.
“In high school, I made another friend who was also deaf and mute, called Danny.
“The more I got to know him using sign language, the stronger I felt about employing people like him to help them, if I ever get to open my own business in the future,” he told The Star.
“I found that opening a restaurant was the best way to go about this. Besides, cooking is also my hobby,” he said.
Until 2016, his dream had to take a back seat while he struggled to figure out a way to employ the deaf and mute.
Today, Teh’s newly opened restaurant Vegan Delights, in Jalan Raja Permaisuri Bainun near the Methodist Girls School here, proudly employs 13 deaf and mute workers, aged 20 to 38, serving and cooking vegetarian meals.
“Instead of using bells to notify staff that food is ready to be served from the kitchen, I had red and blue lights installed.
“So when the red light is lit, the workers know when to go to the kitchen to pick up the freshly cooked food, while the blue light means that drinks are ready to be served from the bar counter,” he said.
At the start, Teh said he and the workers struggled to understand each other as well. In addition, neither side had prior experience in the food and beverage sector.
When the restaurant officially opened its doors on Aug 1 last year, Teh said they had more customers walking in than expected.
“I could still remember that there were some who complained asking why their food wasn’t served yet after one hour.
“Luckily for me, they were very understanding when I explained to them that I employ deaf and mute workers and they immediately accepted my apology and tried to be as patient as possible,” he said.
Teh said the menu too had undergone several rounds of enhancements to ensure efficient communication between customers and the workers.
“Back then, our menu had no pictures. When customers asked about this ‘monkey head mushroom’ that we serve, our workers couldn’t explain it to them either,” he said, adding that the menu now comes with pictures of every meal listed in it.
As for the choice of opening a vegan restaurant, which means ingredients such as eggs, milk and honey are cut out from the diet, Teh said it was due to his personal decision to go vegan a few years back.
Teh said his restaurant is his message to the world that the deaf and mute should not be treated differently from normal people just because of their disability.
“Before I opened my restaurant, many of my current workers told me that they were earning around RM600 to RM800 working as welders, in factories and in the service sector.
“I was shocked because how is that enough for them to survive on their own?
“They are still very able-bodied and more often than not, I feel that they are more hardworking than those of us who do not have any disabilities,” he said.
“I have Chinese, Malay and Indian workers here and there are no language barriers because every one of us communicates with the same language – using our hands,” he said.