#InclusivityAtWork: Leena, A Deaf Barista’s Perspective


The practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups. (Oxford Living Dictionaries)

Nestled in the lobby of the Civil Service College, Foreword Coffee welcomes its customers with a sleek interior that has a soft touch of homeliness. Customers are spoilt for choices with the great variety of drinks calligraphed across the chalkboards, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were even international coffee selections such as Yunnan Ouyang or Indonesia Gayo Aceh.

( Source )

However, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t here to immerse myself in the art of coffee. I was here to learn from Foreword Coffee’s inclusive work environment.

Foreword Coffee is a specialty coffee company with the mission to empower persons with disabilities and special needs (differently-abled persons) by providing service and skills training and employment in the F&B industry. – Foreword Coffee

Stepping into the cafe, I would’ve had no idea that this establishment was run by differently-abled people if I wasn’t told so. As I keenly observed the environment, I was greeted with friendly smiles from the staff which calmed my bout of jitters for the coming interview. The cashier who took my drink was also very lively and patient despite my indecisiveness, and I instantly sat this cafe amongst my top few favourite cafes.

Between the busy crowds, Wei Jie and Leena made time to sit down with me so that I could get an insight into Foreword Coffee’s inclusive environment and Leena’s experience working as a member of the Deaf community.


Leena has had a lot of experience in the F&B industry, and only joined Foreword Coffee a few months ago through her job coach. Through our chat, she stresses the importance of communication in creating a productive and inclusive working environment.

Leena reminds that you don’t need to know how to sign to communicate to a member of the Deaf community. You can always write down your messages!

When asked about her past struggles, she talks about how it wasn’t as easy communicating with colleagues in her previous jobs. It wasn’t just due to their unfamiliarity with sign language but also caused by cultural differences. They may forget to communicate with her or leave her out when it’s hectic. She talks about how she’s happy in Foreword Coffee where there is good communication, and everyone is able to help one another out even when it’s busy.


How is it working with people with different disabilities?

Leena replies that it has been a lot of mutual learning and teaching. While she has learnt a lot during her time here – such as learning how to do latte art – she has also taught many people in the team how to sign! She enjoys having fun with people around her and sharing stories with them. In her past working experiences, she would often feel very easily tired due to the lack of socialising with her colleagues.

We believe that greater understanding of persons with disabilities and special needs can be achieved through meaningful interactions. Therefore, we place importance in positioning our crew at the frontline of service. – Foreword Coffee

“Working with everyone can be difficult, but Leena is very patient.” Wei Jie adds, explaining how she acts as a nurturing and helpful figure to the rest of the team. When I ask if her patience is something that developed over the course of her experience here, Wei Jie is quick to tell me that it has always been in her nature. He signs this to her, and she laughs humbly at the compliment.

To bosses who hope to be more inclusive…

When I asked how she would advise other businesses, Leena shares with me how her previous boss and manager would write to her when they couldn’t sign. They would invite her to eat or drink outside of work and also expressed a keen interest to learn sign language from her. Even though she has left that job, they still keep in contact and miss her dearly. She also playfully slips in that they told her the standard of drinks has dropped after she left.

As Wei Jie facilitates our exchange, I notice how despite the fact that he isn’t the most fluent in Sign Language, he can still comfortably communicate with Leena. They both patiently try to understand one another and I catch them falling into light-hearted conversations such as debating the differences between Thai Iced Lemon Tea and regular Iced Lemon Tea, which I can’t help but smile at.


Leena was very receptive to my interest in learning sign language and immediately showed me how to sign a few phrases and sentences such as “Nice to meet you” or “How are you?” Under their guidance, I learnt quickly within a few minutes and realised how enjoyable the learning experience was.

From my exchange with them, I was shown how building an inclusive environment doesn’t mean having to exercise great changes to existing systems, it simply means facilitating a stronger communication between people and nurturing open minds to learning.

Foreword Coffee is a model example of such, an establishment where communication is unbounded by disabilities and everyone is empowered to show their fullest potential.

Thank you to Leena and Wei Jie from Foreword Coffee for your time.

If you’d like to share a story or come onboard as a storyteller with us, express your interest through content@thehiddengood.com 

Written By: Vanessa Tay


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