On average in Italy, only one disabled person out of five has a job. Poverty affects about 70% of Italians with disabilities. Even when it comes to going out and relaxing with friends, discrimination seems to be embedded into life.
Senza Nome (“Without a Name”) and L'Altro Spazio (“The Other Space”) are leading a charge to change that by challenging unseen obstacles that exclude clients or make them uncomfortable.
The bars began with their own hiring policies, trying to represent customers who are deaf, visually impaired or have mobility difficulties by employing staff who share the same challenges.
But the owners didn’t want to create “disabled spaces”, instead they wanted to create an environment open to all that can help different groups learn about the needs of others stressing the fact that no special disabled space was needed as people with disabilities have to be considered equals.
For example, ordering from a deaf barman requires customers to think about non-verbal communications. Instructions are on hand to explain basic signs to order (although the staff can lip-read for those who struggle).
Another impediment that employees brought to light was the tools they are required to use in other venues which often require near-perfect visual, motor and tactile capacities, such as a standard computer. Many employers unwilling to address this, or accept that speed of output is not the only measurement of performance have closed their doors and their minds, to a fully diverse workspace.
In addition to this, the Italian political situation has not yet allowed Italian Sign Language (LIS) to be recognized as an official language. This results in bureaucratic delays with a severe impact on deaf citizens’ lives.
“The recognition of the language will lead institutions to acquire sign language interpreters and broaden subtitling possibilities in the audiovisual sector. For deaf people, going to post offices, banks, courts to get any kind of document or certification requires a very long time,” signs Alfonso Marrazzo, owner of Senza Nome.
Facing little prospect of succeeding in his first choice career as an artist, he decided to open “Senza Nome”, a bar creating a common ground in which different realities can meet and interact, and where deaf people can find a home.
Marrazzo explains that the bar had to undergo many renovations to render it fit for purpose.
They enlarged the counter so that two deaf people would have the space to communicate and move.
They installed more lamps, which workers can move to attract their colleagues’ attention as deaf people can notice even slight changes in light direction.
In addition, a huge mirror at the entrance allows staff to see what they may not be able to hear happening outside.
Just a street away, “L’Altro Spazio” faced a different problem when they tried to modify their bar to increase accessibility. Strict rules to preserve heritage and historical town centres mean the city has not authorised the construction of a wheelchair ramp for more than 11 years.
"We designed the ramp with an architect who established the best way for it to be built, but at the moment there is no legal route through which our ramp can be authorised,” said Nunzia Vannuccini who runs the venue with her deaf Dutch partner Jascha Blume.”
While waiting for a final response from the courts, repeatedly delayed and now due in March, they have left the ramp in place, preferring to accumulate fines rather than shut out clients.
Inside, they have been able to make changes, widening the bar counter and lowering it to avoid excluding wheelchair users.
"We adapt the environment to the person, not vice versa," Vannuccini said.
For partially sighted employees working in the kitchen, lighting has been adapted orders are written in larger type letters.
Customers are handed tactile guides to help them find their way around and select from the menu.
Tables are spread widely to aid navigation.
“It’s not impossible” for employers to create an environment that welcomes everyone, Vannuccini notes, “The fact is that people don’t think about how to do so concretely, but there are a thousand ways.”