Nicaraguans with Disabilities

After seven years in Granada, Nicaragua, this January, the Cafe de las Sonrisas set up shop in the capital city of Managua. Also known as the “Cafe of Smiles, ” the little restaurant was a popular tourist destination in Granada, partly because of its atmosphere but also its unique staff of Nicaraguans with disabilities. Customers sat down to lunch in a large, airy room with hammocks hanging from the ceiling—courtesy of the hammock factory next door.

The menu presents simple Nicaraguan meals in Spanish and sign language. Posters on the walls also display some words in sign language customers might need to know: hello, goodbye, yes, no and thank you. Aside from an interesting lesson in linguistics, these posters provide a means of communicating with the cafe’s staff, all of whom are deaf and/or mute. That’s where the Cafe de las Sonrisas gets its name, according to the owner. In the absence of the spoken word, the main language of the restaurant is sign language and smiles.

Founding the Tio Antonio Social Center

The cafe—the first cafe in the Americas to employ only people who deaf and/or mute—is the brainchild of Antonio Prieto Brunel, also known as Tio Antonio. A native of Spain, Brunel moved to Nicaragua 13 years ago. After seeing the predicament of people who are deaf in Nicaragua, Brunel set out to make a difference.

As a result, he built the Tio Antonio Social Center, a nongovernmental organization that provides employment for people with disabilities. The Social Center also consists of a hammock shop, which employs young people with various disabilities. Meanwhile, the other half of the Social Center is the Cafe de las Sonrisas.

Living with Disabilities in Nicaragua

For people like the hammock makers and cafe staff, such opportunities are hard to come by. Nicaragua has always been a difficult place for people with disabilities. As recently as the 2000s, people with disabilities were treated as less than human, both by society and their families. Many were hidden from the public by their families for the majority of their lives. And, the abuse of people with disabilities was swept under the rug. In some cases, people with physical or intellectual disabilities were even kept in cages. While such abuses are almost unheard of now, there are stories of people with disabilities being kept in cages from less than 20 years ago.

To make matters worse, Nicaraguans with disabilities lacked access to any sort of public support system. Such a system would allow them to adapt to society or advocate for themselves. Instead, in the 1980s, the first schools for people who are deaf in Nicaragua were built. Before that, many Nicaraguans who are deaf lived in isolation. This was not only due to societal stigma but also the lack of community. In fact, Nicaraguan Sign Language was not developed until the schools began bringing children who are deaf together.

Improving Circumstances in Nicaragua

Since then, social progress for people with disabilities in Nicaragua has been slow but steady. While the government has built “special schools” for children with disabilities, these schools are chronically underfunded and understaffed. In addition, youth with disabilities frequently lack social support from their families. Seventy percent of children with disabilities in Nicaragua grow up without their fathers. Frequently, the birth of a child with disabilities results in the father abandoning the family. In addition, due to the stigma surrounding disability, 90 percent of Nicaraguans with disabilities are unemployed.

Without employment, many adults with disabilities are forced to depend on their families for most of their lives. Those without families, or without family members willing to support a relative with disabilities, often end up on the streets.

Employing Nicaraguans with Disabilities

Thanks to the hammock factory and the cafe, Brunel’s employees have been able to avoid such fate. Along with providing employment, the Tio Antonio Social Center prepares its workers for other jobs by teaching them career skills. Ultimately, its goal is to allow the Nicaraguan youth with disabilities to have the freedom that older generations with disabilities were denied. Equipped with gainful employment and career skills, Brunel’s employees have the opportunity to support themselves, which means that they can avoid being dependent on their families like many Nicaraguans with disabilities.

Plus, the Cafe de las Sonrisas is aiding the deaf community of Nicaragua in more ways than one. By having customers communicate with their waiters in Nicaraguan Sign Language, the cafe helps spread knowledge of NSL among the general public. Furthermore, all of the staff members being deaf and/or mute, in a business as public as the cafe, allows them to be visible to society in a way that most Nicaraguans with disabilities are not.

By allowing this visibility, the Cafe de las Sonrisas helps to combat stereotypes about Nicaraguans with disabilities. In a country where they are often ignored or mistreated and where it is nearly impossible to get a job and support themselves, the staff of the Cafe de las Sonrisas provides living proof that people with disabilities are capable of supporting themselves and contributing to society.

Keira Charles
Photo: connact global