“My identity is accepted here,” said Crystal Harris, a barista at the signing store. “Deafness has many faces.”
The store is just blocks from Gallaudet University, a 150-year-old institution and the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The shop mirrors Starbucks’s first signing store, which opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2016. Customers from the outside can spot “Starbucks” written out in fingerspelling beneath the main logo and on large table umbrellas. And on the inside, what may appear like any other Starbucks cafe has been specifically laid out and decorated to celebrate deaf culture.
One entire wall, for example, is covered by a multicolored mural commissioned by Yiqiao Wang, a deaf artist and Gallaudet faculty member. In fingerspelling, the mural depicts a lowercase “d,” representing deafness, an uppercase “D,” representing deaf identity, an eye to represent visual connections, a hand holding a coffee cup, and other symbols showing merging of deaf and hearing cultures.
Customers can communicate in ASL or write their orders on a tech pad. Rather than wait to hear their names called at the end of the bar, customers look up to a screen showing when their drinks are ready. The store was also remodeled to maximize light and open lines of sight — high top tables or tall stacks of cups, for example, limit visibility for people signing to each other. Non-signing customers are also encouraged to use visual cues. Rather than sign that the store didn’t carry chamomile tea, for example, one employee waved his hand across his neck — signaling “no” — and then pointed to a printed menu with other options.
Camille Hymes, Starbucks’s regional vice president for the Mid-Atlantic, said the company chose D.C. for its proximity to Gallaudet and because of the city’s ties to activism for the deaf community. Using the store as a profitable business model, Hymes said, Starbucks can be an example to other companies of “using our scale for good.”
Adam Novsam, a Starbucks utility analyst and a company deaf leadership member, said he had heard from “deaf communities all over the world that they wanted this space.” Even as a Starbucks employee, Novsam said that it can be frustrating to go into other Starbucks or coffee shops and face constant communication barriers. He always has his order typed out on his phone, for example, “to accommodate the other person.”
Store manager Matthew Gilsbach moved from California’s Bay Area to run the signing location. At one point in his three and a half years at the company, Gilsbach said he was stunned to meet a deaf Starbucks district manager.
“I thought, wait, there’s a deaf district manager?” Gilsbach said. “What’s going on?"
Any disbelief that a deaf person could take on a management or executive role is precisely the kind of stigma Starbucks and deaf community advocates aim to combat. Howard Rosenblum, chief executive of the National Association of the Deaf, said that companies may hire deaf employees at lower levels, but those opportunities rarely extend up the chain.
Some companies show signs of progress: Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, is deaf and has fought to expand accessibility for employees with disabilities. Still, the deaf community’s rate of unemployment and underemployment sits at a staggering 70 percent, Rosenblum said.
“The manager is always a hearing person because there’s a perception of limited ability with deaf people,” Rosenblum said.
Not so at the H Street Starbucks. Employee Kylie Garcia had just been promoted from a barista to a shift supervisor. Garcia grew up as the only deaf individual in a non-signing, hearing family, and she knows firsthand how difficult it is for deaf people to find jobs. Garcia previously worked in a Starbucks kiosk at a Target store where her sole job was to make drinks — never interacting with customers and often being shut out of conversations with other baristas.
“People turned down offering me jobs because they aren’t willing to take the risk,” Garcia said.
Pamela Pipes, a hearing barista who is also a sign language interpreter, moved from Raleigh, N.C., to work at the D.C. signing store. Here, “the tables have turned,” Pipes said, in that hearing customers are going to have to figure out how to navigate and communicate in deaf spaces.
Sitting across from her, Harris joked that during phases of the remodel, some customers were still stumped. A few waited to hear their names at the end of the counter. Another walked in and, as if to signal that he wanted a large drink, held his hands in front of him about two feet apart.
The store will continue to collect feedback from customers and employees, and Starbucks may eye another city for the next signing store. But this week, Novsam saw a dream fulfilled. Two nights before the Starbucks opening, Novsam walked down H Street to see the mural beaming yellows, pinks, greens and blues.
“The vibrancy moved me,” Novsam said. “It made me stop in my tracks. And it gave me tears.”