KATHMANDU (Reuters) - As the diners enter, Ram Babu Kafle strolls over with a notebook and ballpoint pen and stands beside their table at the Bakery café in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu.
He touches his ear and mouth and raises his fingers, signalling the customers to place their orders using sign language because he can neither speak nor hear.
This job and those of waiters at the restaurant’s other branches are a rare job opportunity for the deaf in Nepal, providing an income and independence not only for them but for the rest of their family as well.
“I just wanted to prove that deaf people are equally talented like others, and they have already demonstrated that,” said Shyam Kakshhapati, who owns the restaurant chain and has employed deaf people for over a decade.
“It is now up to the government to come up with incentives for hiring deaf people and treating them as honoured members of society.”
More than 60 deaf waiters, ten of them women, work in seven outlets of the Bakery cafe across Kathmandu, serving pizzas, juicy momo dumplings and burgers.
Restaurant authorities provide free training, give them free meals on duty as well as paying for uniforms, medical expenses and housing on top of their starting monthly salary of $150, a modest income in a country where one quarter of its 26.6 million people live on a daily income of less than $1.25.
Some shopping malls are also following suit and have employed disabled people in their stores.
Although some families in this majority Hindu nation still consider disability to be a punishment for something the person did in a previous life, and view the disabled as a burden for the family, attitudes are changing fast amid the rapid political changes of recent years.
Nepal emerged from a decade-long civil war in 2006 and a special assembly dominated by the Maoist former rebels is preparing its first republican constitution after abolishing the 239-year-old monarchy in 2008.
The assembly, which doubles as the country’s parliament, is expected to make provisions for socially underprivileged people in running the central government.
It has one deaf member who also cannot speak and takes part in legislative debates using sign language with the help of an assistant.
Kakshhapati recruited the first group of deaf waiters 13 years ago after being impressed by the dedication of some deaf people checking passes at a business event. He said he was initially sceptical about the public response and how well the waiters would do, but both have surpassed his expectations.
Sagar Adhikari, a university student who is a regular customer at the restaurant where Kafle works, said that things went quite smoothly in general.
“There is no problem except some minor communication hiccups. But that is okay,” he said over a steaming bowl of dumplings.
With some 500,000 deaf people across Nepal, Kakshhapati said he is able to make a difference in the lives of only a handful. Opportunities are few for the rest, and life is hard.
Kafle, who is 35 and has two children, said in sign language interpreted by the restaurant manager that he was lucky to be employed in a place where he suffers no discrimination.
“It has given us the confidence that we can do something in life despite our physical disability,” he said.
Reporting by Gopal Sharma; editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato