Silent bakery speaks volumes for hearing-impaired in China's Wuhan

Wan Xiaohui, a cashier at Pica Pica Bakery in central China's city of Wuhan, bends her thumb twice as she hands paper bags packed with fresh bread and cookies to customers.

Wan Xiaohui, a cashier at Pica Pica Bakery in central China's city of Wuhan, bends her thumb twice as she hands paper bags packed with fresh bread and cookies to customers.

The gesture, meaning "thank you" in Chinese sign language, has been repeated countless times over the past four years by staff and patrons in the bakery, which employs people with hearing impairments.

During a charity bakery course in 2017, Tan Ting encountered a group of students with physical and intellectual disabilities. "Their upbeat manner and rapt attention touched me deeply," said Tan, who then had the idea to open a bakery that could provide careers for the disabled.

For the next six months, she was busy collecting information from overseas and visiting silent bakeries, cafes and special education schools in major cities including Nanjing, Guangzhou and Changsha. Having learned about relevant policies and professional training and managing methods, she opened Pica Pica in December 2017.

"Ordinary though Pica Pica, or magpie, may be in China, it represents a tough-minded personality and serves as an envoy of joy and good luck in our culture. The bird is just like us, ordinary but unflinching and spreading happiness in life," explained the 34-year-old Tan.

After the bakery opened, she began to recruit people with hearing impairments. "We're not a charity organization and we face fierce market competition, so we do not just accept anyone who is looking for a job," said Tan, noting that communication and writing skills, as well as an understanding of the baking industry, are among the main focuses of her interview questions.

After a three-hour written and in-person interview in 2018, Wan, who lost her hearing at birth, joined Pica Pica. "For me, the bakery is my school and home. I've learned many baking skills and made many friends. What's more, the job ensures I have a great sense of accomplishment," said the 27-year-old cashier.

In their spare time, the staff of Pica Pica often visit nearby communities, nursing homes and schools to offer free baking courses.

"Hearing-impaired employees cannot engage with the world through sound, but they always embrace the world with smiles," said Tan. "We organize an average of five charity events every month to bring joy to others with our professional baking services."

In addition to Pica Pica, other bakeries and cafes hiring people with disabilities have mushroomed over the years in China's major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Changsha, providing more job options for the disabled.

"These new forms and channels of employment enable people with disabilities to support themselves through their own efforts and realize their value," said Zhang Wanhong, executive head of the human rights research institute at Wuhan University and part-time vice president of the Hubei Disabled Persons' Federation.

Zhang said that working in the services sector, such as in bakeries and cafes, can bring abled people and disabled people together to learn about different skills and talents, which helps change the negative stereotype of disabled people as disadvantaged and a social burden.

Han is the mother of bakery employee Li Xing, who is hearing-impaired. Han said that special education schools in China, covering compulsory education to higher education, have helped her daughter become educated, and that increasingly diversified career options have facilitated her daughter's integration into mainstream society. She also praised the country's subsidies for families with disabled members.

"This job enriches her life and guarantees her an equal opportunity to earn money through her own efforts, just like others," Han added.

Looking to the future of people with disabilities in China on National Day for Helping the Disabled, which was marked on Sunday, Zhang noted two concerns.

"Though China's poverty alleviation campaign has been successful, the disabled, especially those who live in rural areas, still face the possibility of returning to poverty. It is necessary to further improve their development opportunities and consolidate the monitoring and assistance mechanism for the disabled," said Zhang.

"This year marks the 30th anniversary of the implementation of China's law on protecting the rights and interests of people with disabilities. Over the past three decades, the legal system protecting the rights of disabled people in our country has been basically established. The focus now is to implement the laws," Zhang added.

To date, Pica Pica has employed eight hearing-impaired staff members. Some of its former employees have since launched their own businesses in the sector.

"I hope Pica Pica can be a place that sows dreams for the hearing-impaired. I will give them all the support and guidance I can provide, hoping that the skills they learn here will help them lead better lives in the future," said Tan.

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