Have a coffee and learn sign language

I Love Coffee, which employs Deaf baristas, is an integral part of the community at Johannesburg’s WeWork

Most coffee lovers have their preferred drink down to a science. If you’re anything like me, your standard order rolls off your tongue as if it was one word. But at WeWork The Link in Johannesburg, South Africa, the members take a different approach when engaging with the barista.

At The Link, members are greeted by a friendly barista and signage that shows them how to communicate their coffee order in Sign Language. 

The barista at the location, Vivian Sigwiji, joined the WeWork community through a partnership with I Love Coffee, a Cape Town-based coffee shop that trains and employs Deaf baristas. “We create job opportunities for the Deaf communities,” says Gary Hopkins, cofounder of I Love Coffee. “We see young people come in who are very shy and nervous. We give them an opportunity, and within a few months they’re flourishing.” 

I Love Coffee first opened its doors in June of 2016. Hopkins and his cofounder were looking for a way to make a difference and quickly realized that if people wanted coffee badly enough, they might learn how to sign in order to get it.

The partnership with WeWork was a natural fit. In 2019, WeWork expanded to Johannesburg and was looking for South Africa-based, social-enterprise coffee companies to partner with. WeWork often prioritizes local coffee companies when opening new locations, so this partnership was a perfect fit. In no time at all, the WeWork community adapted their ordering style and started signing. 

“Some members of the community have become fluent in Sign Language because they wanted to engage with the baristas,” says Fred Gatari, a community lead at The Link. “Our members have asked for classes to learn Sign Language.”

“Much of our company starts with the coffee,” Hopkins says. “You order your first coffee, and then you grow confidence and start asking other questions and learning Sign Language.” 

Sigwiji is enjoying the moments of human connection and mutual understanding she’s been having with members at The Link. “The people are so kind, loving, respectful, and encouraging,” shares Sigwiji. “If I can see that they may be having a hard day, I like to make them feel better. When I’m feeling down, members comfort me and cheer me up.”

Ultimately, a great cup of coffee is practically an afterthought. “Having the baristas here gives people an experience they’re not always expecting to have,” says Gatari. “It allows people to use empathy and creativity to actively work on connecting with someone.” 

Jenna Wilson is a senior associate on the social media team at WeWork and a writer for Ideas by WeWork. She writes about impact, sustainability, and WeWork’s employees around the world.

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