Starbucks has more than 8,000 stores nationwide. One of them will soon be run entirely in American Sign Language.
“This is a historic moment in Starbucks ongoing journey to connect with the deaf and hard of hearing community, hire and engage deaf and hard of hearing partners, and continue to find ways to be more inclusive, accessible and welcoming to all,” said Rossann Williams, Starbucks’s executive vice president of U.S. retail.
The store will open near Gallaudet University, a 150-year-old institution and the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The campus of 1,900 students is located in northeast Washington, a quick walk from blocks of restaurants and bars along the bustling H Street corridor.
The store will feature art and a mug designed by a deaf artist. Deaf employees will wear aprons that show “Starbucks” spelled in sign language. Hearing employees proficient in sign language will wear pins showing they can sign.
A visual display will walk customers through their orders, and a similar display will show them that their orders are ready, in place of baristas calling out a name or order.
Howard Rosenblum, chief executive of the National Association of the Deaf, said American Sign Language is one of the most-used languages in the country and is not limited to deaf people. He said the store is one way for businesses such as Starbucks to bring people together so they can learn how to communicate with one another, whether they are deaf or hearing.
“Starbucks’s first signing store can show other corporations that including deaf people is good for business and can increase its market share,” Rosenblum said. “Hiring deaf people or people with disability should not be viewed as a charity but as a way to improve a corporation’s reach across different segments of the market.”
In 2014, Washington City Paper highlighted how the neighborhood around Gallaudet has become more inclusive to deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons. Restaurants and bars are hiring more workers who are proficient in sign language, with one even hosting a sign-language trivia night.
The store mirrors Starbucks’s first signing store, which opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2016. The store hired, trained and coached deaf employees, taught sign language to hearing employees, and opened with nine deaf partners.
At the Malaysia store, customers place orders using a menu card that they mark up and hand off to a barista. Deaf partners hand-write notes to interact with customers. Customers see that their beverages are ready when a screen displays a number that matches one on their receipts.
A video announcing the signing store shows deaf Starbucks employees sharing how long they have worked for Starbucks and their roles within the company. One former employee named Kevin, who is blind and deaf and worked as a consultant on the D.C. signing store, said that a group of Starbucks employees went to Malaysia in 2017 to learn how to model that store in the United States.
Inclusion of deaf customers and partners is yet another goal Starbucks has announced in the past few months. After two young black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store in mid-April, Starbucks said it would close 8,000 stores nationwide for an afternoon of racial-bias training at the end of May. Starbucks also crafted new guidelines allowing customers to sit in stores and use the restroom without making a purchase, and outlined when employees should (and should not) call 911.
After the training, Starbucks committed to monthly trainings over the next year on issues related to bias and discrimination. Still, it remains to be seen how Starbucks will achieve the “full-scale racial equity overhaul” called for by outside experts.
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