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Restaurant Staffed by Workers Who Cannot Hear or Speak

January 9, 1988

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ At first glance, the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on Imbi Road looks like most of the other restaurants in the chain.

Red-and-white motif, Col. Sanders smiling from a sign and the promise of ″finger-lickin’ good″ food. Waiters wear perky uniforms and seem relentlessly cheerful.

But there are differences. Customers order by pointing to a menu card illustrated with numbered portions of the food and beverages available and hold up fingers to indicate the number of items wanted.

When the chicken is fried, flashing red lights instead of buzzers on the automatic cooker alert kitchen workers. The differences are explained by a sign in the English, Chinese and Malay languages.

″The staff operating this restaurant is deaf. Thank you for your patience and cooperation. The management.″

Cooks, waiters and cashiers communicate in sign language at the only Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the world staffed by employees who cannot hear or speak. Only the managers, who have been taught basic sign language, have normal hearing and speech.

What began in 1986 as a charitable experiment has been declared a commercial success.

″We had been helping sponsor and making donations to the Selangor (state) School for the Deaf,″ said George Ting, executive director of the franchise in Malaysia.

The conversion did not require many physical changes, Ting said in an interview.

In addition to flashing lights instead of the usual buzzers, mirrors are strategically placed in the kitchen so cooks do not have to constantly watch the lights. Signs to advise the public and larger and more pictorial menus completed the arrangements.

″We spent a fair bit of time trying to polish service methods without conversation,″ said Ting. Deaf staff or not, the assumption was that Imbi Road had to meet company standards.

Speaking through a manager, cashier Tham Kian Fye, 20, said it took him three weeks to master the cash register. Waitress Uma Sumathry, 23, said customers understand their limitations and try not to make things difficult.

The atmosphere seems more purposeful and restrained than at other fast-food outlets. But Ting said the piped music might get too loud when the manager is not around.

″They make better workers ... well above average. They are more productive because they concentrate fully. They indulge in less horseplay than normal youngsters because they know it would be hard to get work elsewhere,″ Ting said.

They earn from 350 to 400 ringgit ($140 to $160) a month. About 40 men and women between the ages of 19 to 26 have been employed so far and none has quit or been discharged.

The innovation was extremely well received by Kentucky Fried Chicken’s board of directors in Louisville, Ky., Ting said.

There are no plans to convert more shops in the Malaysian chain, but deaf staffers have been assigned to other restaurants as drink dispensers or packers, where they would not normally come into direct contact with the public.

Sales are about the same at the 80-seat restaurant as before it was converted, about 1,500 ringgit ($600) per day, said marketing executive Khalid Ismail. It has attracted as new customers others who cannot hear or speak.

End Adv Weekend Editions Jan 9-10