That is the first sentence written on the menu at the Neema Crafts Gallery Café in Iringa, Tanzania. The menu then prompts the customer to write his or her order down on a slip of paper, and includes a few pages on basic sign language.

In many places in the world – and especially in developing countries – deafness or physical disability is a burden and a mark of shame for the individual and family. In the West, a disabled child is put in a special class or school, and most of society assumes that he or she are not as capable as a non-disabled person. In Tanzania, a disabled child is hidden away or abandoned by his or her family. Hospitals turn away the disabled, and most live on the streets.

Neema Crafts employs only the deaf and physically disabled. The café cooks are all deaf. The crafts workshop, which has paper making, beading, weaving, and sewing, is staffed by both the deaf and physically disabled. The goods are sold in a shop, and the profits pay their wages and help support a physiotherapy center. Most of the employees were living on the street just a few years ago. Every one of them has a story to tell.

Meet Josphat, for example (on the right in the picture above). Josphat is deaf. In sign language, everyone is given a sign name. Josphat’s name motions to the curve in his spine – “the hunchback.” He was one of the first paper-makers at Neema Crafts, and he came with a short temper and low self-esteem after years of neglect. Within a few months of working at Neema Crafts, his entire attitude changed. He became a confident and incredibly able paper-maker. So able, that the other deaf employees changed his sign name to a motion meaning “he is able.” Changing a sign name is often unheard of. Changing one’s name from his disability to his ability is makes this transformation even more powerful.

Every one of Neema Crafts’ employees has had their own unique transformation. I only spent a couple days there, but I could feel confidence from every person I met.  These people used to beg on the streets. Now they produce work they are proud of and earn a living for themselves. They hold their heads high as they move around town. And on top of it all, they’ve changed the perception of the deaf and physically disabled in their communities. They’ve shown people who believed they could never do anything that they, in fact, can.

If that’s not empowerment, I don’t know what is.

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