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Disabilities Beat: French business leaders' perspectives on American accessibility

Noémie Churlet, woman with brown hair that is tied back, is having a conversation in French Sign Language. She is wearing a brown and orange dress with a long orange cardigan. To her right is Arthur Devillers, a man with short dark hair wearing a black long sleeve polo and black jeans. He is looking at Churlet and smiling with his hands folded in his lap. They are sitting on a multicolored couch in a hotel. There is a WBFO NPR microphone in the foreground.
Bailey Critoph And Karla Dobozin
Buffalo Toronto Public Media
Noémie Churlet and Arthur Devillers sit on a couch in a hotel for an interview with WBFO's Emyle Watkins.

Last week on the WBFO Disabilities Beat, we shared an interview with Jérémie Boroy, the advisor to the Mayor of Paris on people with disabilities,who was visiting the United States as part of the U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

This week, we share an interview with two business leaders from the Deaf community in France who were part of the IVLP trip to Buffalo. Noémie Churlet is the co-founder and director of Médiapi, an organization that provides news and education that is accessible to the Deaf community. WBFO's Disability Reporter Emyle Watkins and Churlet discuss media accessibility and educational opportunities for deaf people. Arthur Devillers is the founder and CEO of Furahaa Group, a vegan food chain in France, and started a French association of the Deaf called Mains Diamant, or Diamond Hands in English. Devillers and Watkins discuss barriers for deaf people in employment and business.

Churlet and Devillers are both Deaf and use French Sign Language, so you will hear their answers spoken in English by an interpreter (not shown on screen) supporting the IVLP program. Certified Deaf Interpreter Ellen Roth, sitting next to Watkins, translates Watkins' questions to French Sign Language for Churlet and Devillers and then translates Churlet and Devillers' answers to American Sign Language. Some questions were provided ahead of time and are read word-for-word to assist with translation and interpretation. American Sign Language interpretation was kindly provided by contractors supporting the International Visitor Leadership Program. The International Institute of Buffalo and Rochester Global Connections co-hosted this IVLP program visit to Buffalo, which focused on employment, education and immigration/refugee services for the Deaf community.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: The United States government has a program that allows professionals from around the world visit the United States to learn from our communities and to share their knowledge with our communities. This is called the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP. Recently, the program brought a group of leaders from the Deaf community in France to visit a few cities, including Buffalo and Rochester. Last week, we shared an interview with Jérémie Boroy. Jérémie advises the Mayor of Paris on issues impacting people with disabilities. Jérémie, who is deaf, also helped create disability law in France and is the chairperson of a national advisory organization focused on disability in France.

This week, we share an interview with Noémie Churlet and Arthur Devillers, two leaders from the Deaf community in France who own businesses. WBFO's Disabilities Beat Reporter Emyle Watkins interviews them in a hotel. Noémie runs Médiapi, a business that provides news and education in sign language in France. Emyle and Noémie talk about the differences in education for deaf people in France and the United States. They also discuss how news and education could improve for deaf people. Emyle also talks with Arthur, who owns Furahaa Group. Furahaa is a chain of vegan restaurants in France. Arthur also started Mains Diamant, or Diamond Hands in English, which is an association for the Deaf community in France. Emyle and Arthur talk about how business, employment and education could improve for deaf people, both in the United States and France.

This week's Disabilities Beat segment includes a full length video interview with American Sign Language interpretation and an English transcript, provided below. Noémie and Arthur are both Deaf and use French Sign Language, so next to Emyle is Ellen Roth, a Certified Deaf Interpreter who knows both American and French sign languages. She translates Emyle's questions to French Sign Language for Noémie and Arthur. She also translates Noémie and Arthur's questions to American Sign Language. There are interpreters not shown on camera who are working with Ellen to assist with interpretation and are the ones speaking the answers in English. Some of the questions were provided ahead of time to help the interpreters prepare so Emyle occasionally looks at a piece of paper. They are in a hotel common area.



Emyle Watkins: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. To start, would you both tell me a little bit about you and your work back in France?

Interpreter: Who would you like to go first?

Emyle Watkins: Whoever would like to go first. Up to you.

Arthur Devillers: I established a chain of restaurants a few years ago. The first flagship opened in 2016. We opened outside of Paris in the suburbs to see how it would gain recognition in the community. I happened to go to Africa with a friend of mine who is also French and we were on the street just seeing many people there who were not disabled, and my friend and I both used sign language and people would come up... or someone came up to us, rather, on the street and asked if I was Deaf. And they said that they work bringing sugar and other food products to people on the street. I asked them a little bit about their living conditions, and they said that even if they are working to deliver these products with a smile, they only receive a dollar a day for their work. But they had such a beautiful positive attitude and I wanted to help these people. I wanted to give them more opportunities for employment and I figured that when I went back to France, that I wanted to establish a restaurant to make deaf people more visible to the larger community and we wanted to create employment for deaf people. It's been very successful, and we've seen great success and now we have expanded our business to multiple locations.

Emyle Watkins: That's great to hear and really exciting.

Noémie Churlet: Well, at my previous job, I was an actor. I was in some films, some TV shows, and as time went on, I saw that there was a major problem in the TV industry in France because deaf people... or rather, they did not see deaf people as a professional, including myself. Now in 2015, there was a large mass shooting in Paris, and at that time there were no captions on the news, there was no interpreter on the news, and many deaf people in Paris were incredibly frightened by what was happening in Paris and did not know where the safe locations would be. And our Deaf community was left behind without any access to the disaster information that was coming out from the government. So, I decided to establish my company Médiapi. We are an organization of 20 deaf people, all of us whom are deaf that work as professionals, as reporters like yourself, as writers. We also have two individuals who are hearing that work in my company and that is what we have been doing.

Emyle Watkins: If it's okay, I'll start by asking you [Noémie] a few direct questions because that kind of leads into something that I was going to ask about. And actually, as a journalist, I covered a very similar issue after our mass shooting in Buffalo. There was not a sign language interpreter for a week [after] on TV press conferences about what happened. And as well, we've also had that issue with major blizzards and snow storms and so we've reported on that. I guess I'm wondering from your time in the US or observing US media or talking with people here, do you think that the US and France have similar issues in terms of accessibility of news and educational content?

Noémie Churlet: I do feel that America is more supportive of the Deaf community because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, as well as the National Association of the Deaf. And so, there are already communication laws on the books that are requiring businesses to give access, but in France, we do not have a National Association of the Deaf. We do not have a law as strong as the ADA, and so it takes a very long time to enact things and to advocate at the political levels. Politics can be very slow. Things do not actually happen very quickly there because of the amount of bureaucracy. I think that there are some serious barriers and we need to increase the level of accessibility. I do believe that France is much farther behind compared to America and the education system for Deaf French people is very behind. There is no accessibility in French schools for deaf people.

Emyle Watkins: Well, thank you for sharing that. I'm wondering, is there anyone you've met on this trip or any visits you've had or things you've learned that you're going to be taking back to your organization and implementing?

Noémie Churlet: I understand that Deaf culture and Deaf education is really quite cherished here and the preservation of the Deaf culture. I have learned that there are laws in place that protect the rights of deaf individuals and that it takes a long time to preserve those things, but those are nuggets that I will be returning home to. And I've been really struck about the Deaf education system for K-12 individuals. We learned about a program that even hearing people here in the United States can learn sign language because it is respected as a language. I love the idea of having bilingual schools in which our French children can learn both French Sign Language as well as the French spoken written language. I think that all four of the delegates that I am traveling with are very excited to see new partnerships that are being born because of this trip. And then, we're able to continue the conversation as we return back to France and try to establish models and grow our systems there. But, yes, definitely there are certain things that will be brought home with me.

Emyle Watkins: And if you don't mind me asking, what is the education system like in France for deaf students? I apologize that I'm not more familiar.

Noémie Churlet: It's not that great. We do have a school for deaf children. It's in Toulouse, which is the south of France. There is another city that has a deaf school, which is called Poitiers. Their systems are very different. In the south, all of the deaf children are put in the same school, whereas in Poitiers there are deaf children in a public school with other hearing children, and they'll have a hearing teacher as well as a deaf teacher. They will not have an interpreter, but they will have a hearing and a deaf teacher. There's another school location. The third location has more of a medical approach in which they focus on assistive hearing devices like hearing aids and cochlear implants. They promote the use of spoken French and lip-reading, which is not always the most effective approach.

In France, we do not have many deaf individuals involved in government. There are very few who are trying very hard to make changes at the governmental levels for deaf children. There was a law passed in 2005 and that law that was passed in 2005 talks about accessibility issues, but also it ensures that parents can make the choice for their children of if they use sign language or if they use spoken French and try to learn to lip-read. But that leaves little choice for the child to make the choice for themselves. Ninety-five percent of our children are born to hearing parents. Ninety-five percent, that's a large majority. Many hearing parents are upset and scared when they find out that their baby is deaf. And in that state of mind, they're making decisions that have lasting impacts on their children's lives.

Emyle Watkins: Do you feel like there is an international challenge to have, or kind of a universal challenge, to have the Deaf community and sign languages seen as a culture and a community rather than this kind of pathologized medical condition that, like you said, some people take the approach of trying to fix or cure rather than provide those... I don't want to say accommodations, but those languages and resources that create equal access?

Noémie Churlet: Yes. I wouldn't be surprised. You know, to be quite honest, I thought that the United States had achieved equity and that there weren't going to be many problems. But we are hearing from this trip that cochlear implants are still a hot topic and many parents are choosing those for their children. Again, many hearing parents don't think that their deaf child will have an equitable future or have the ability to dream big, but deaf people can, of course. And other hearing individuals are still oppressing deaf people. I was very shocked to know that that was still happening in the US, even though it happens in France as well and I'm sure in many other countries. I certainly couldn't speak to all countries, but I do feel that it is a universal problem, as you say.

Emyle Watkins: That kind of leads in my final question for you specifically. But, from visiting the US as someone with an outside perspective, where do you think the United States has room to grow in terms of how we share news and educational content with the Deaf community?

Noémie Churlet: That is a great question. I don't know that I'm the best person to answer that, but I would encourage you to reach out to the National Association of the Deaf. They would be great to answer that question.

Emyle Watkins: Absolutely. I just wasn't sure if there's anything that stuck out to you from this trip that you were like, "That really surprised me." Like you mentioned, things that you thought the US had figured out.

Noémie Churlet: Well, you know, what we're seeing from Deaf Americans is that we still need to work on these accessibility issues.

I think it really is... I'm not sure that I've seen a problem myself, but I've learned that there are many interpreters and some of them are quite fabulous and some of them still have work to do. There are many other things that could be pointed to you for improvement, but I'm not quite sure I'm the right person to answer your specific question.

Emyle Watkins: Absolutely. I know it's a hard question, but I appreciate you giving me your perspective. And Arthur, I know you've done significant work in promoting sign language in France. You've made the brand of your company really inclusive and accessible to the Deaf community. I watched quite a few of your TikToks last night. I'm wondering, how do you think this trip is going to influence the work you do as a business leader and also as someone who's really worked to promote sign language in your country?

Arthur Devillers: So, I started my restaurant franchise in the suburbs and now we have one location that we call our headquarters right there in the center of Paris. It is a 2,000 square foot location and all of our employees are... nine of them are deaf and two of them are hearing. Now in total, we have four locations of our restaurant in France, and then we have two locations in other countries. My goal is that individuals who come to the restaurant see deaf people gainfully employed and get exposure to sign language. I have taught them that they need to use sign language, like the sign for bonjour, good morning, or merci or thank you. We are teaching hearing people who patron our restaurant even if they have never met a deaf person and they're feeling very afraid or nervous. You know, it's like sometimes there are certain groups of people who've never seen a Black person before. By exposing them to a different culture than their own, it just becomes a natural part of their life. And so we're taking that model and doing so with the hearing community with our deaf employees.

Emyle Watkins: I'm wondering how this trip might impact the work you do and the way you lead your business. Is there anything specific that you learned that you think you're going to take back and implement?

Arthur Devillers: Now, for a long time I've been very focused on my restaurant business and what I am learning here will impact something that I have already been working on. Previous to being in the restaurant business, I brought together a group of deaf individuals and hearing individuals to talk about what are different opportunities for us to promote accessibility, to share information, and we were doing very well. We all had dreams of establishing a new program similar to what you have here in the US. For example, schools or university that are specifically engaged with the Deaf community, something like a Gallaudet [University] for France. This association was working in 15 years ago and actually I was chosen by the Embassy of Paris, 15 years ago, to give a lecture of sorts. My presentation was very well received by that current cohort of IVLP, and so I'm so grateful to be here with IVLP as a chosen member of the delegation with Noémie, Manon, and Jérémie and we were able to speak with people from Gallaudet. Just recently we went to RIT/NTID and I felt my renewed excitement, even with the conversation we had at City Hall here in Buffalo. I want to go back to the Deaf association that I started, which is called Mains Diamant, which means Diamond Hands. I would like to work not only in my restaurant business to continue building the franchise, but also to work on behalf of the Deaf community in this association in a very organized manner.

Emyle Watkins: And... sorry, that was just... there's a moment where you're like, "That was just a really thoughtful and incredible answer." I love doing these interviews because I get to learn so much. I want to ask, as someone who's founded a food chain, what have you noticed from your time here? I know you guys haven't gotten to eat out a lot, but from the times you have eaten out, like at Sunshine Eats, how do you think these restaurants in the United States could be more accessible to people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, based also on your experience as someone who leads a very Deaf-forward food chain?

Arthur Devillers: When I opened my restaurant in Paris, I had a goal in mind. I wanted each individual who entered our doors to feel like they were welcome there. So we ensured that the entryway was the appropriate slope for individuals who might be using wheelchairs. We also have an escalator up to the second floor instead of to the stairs. We also ensured that our water closet was accessible fully to anyone who may want to use it.

Now, here in Buffalo, I was just at the vegan restaurant and at first, I had gone into several other restaurants that were... I was pretty impressed with their accessibility. But even though it was so small, they had a lift of sorts. Not an elevator, but a way to get someone in a wheelchair into their space.

Now, I do want to recognize that anyone in the vegan business is very humane. They're always thinking about individuals and taking care of people, and so I'm not surprised that they are already on board with accessibility.

Now, at Gallaudet, we were able to see many different technologies that deaf people can use. In Washington DC, there is a 100% accessible signing Starbucks. The managers and the employees there all use sign language. I was able to visit there a couple of times right there on H Street and Northeast. And just down the street is also Mozzeria, which is a deaf-owned pizza shop. I was just very impressed and excited and motivated and empowered by the fact that the US is really embracing the idea of Deaf restauranturs.

Emyle Watkins: That's great to hear. I guess as a final question, what has been the biggest takeaway from this trip so far for you? What do you think is going to influence you the most as you head back to France or what are you excited to share with people back in France?

Arthur Devillers: Oh, choose just one...

Interpreter: Noémie is saying...

Noémie Churlet: I believe that the number one thing is that we must establish laws on behalf of the Deaf communities, something similar to the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act. We must have something in its stead in France.

Interpreter: And Arthur is saying..

Arthur Devillers: I agree. I think when we return to France, that is something that we must advocate for. It is no longer okay to keep with the status quo, but things must change.

Emyle Watkins: Well, great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and talk to our listeners and readers and viewers on WBFO. I hope the rest of your trip goes well.

Noémie Churlet: I want to thank the Department of State of the US government for choosing us as delegates for their IVLP, as well as for your invitation to be here. I'm also so appreciative to the interpreters who have made this trip accessible to us and so I just wanted to say thank you to the US Department of State for having us.

Interpreter: And Arthur is saying...

Arthur Devillers: I feel a very deep gratitude for being chosen for this visit. Thank you for having us.


This week's Disability Beat segment featured two segments that aired on Morning Edition and All Things Considered locally on WBFO. In the morning, we featured parts of the interview with Noémie Churlet, and in the afternoon we featured parts of the interview with Arthur Devillers. Both were edited for length and clarity.

Disabilities Beat Morning Edition May 8, 2024
Disabilities Beat All Things Considered May 8, 2024

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.