Photos by Sienna McCorkle for Acumen Magazine
At first glance, the Starbucks located at 6th and H Street Northeast appears the same as its many other locations – newly redesigned interior, sleek counter-tops, even a digital name roster to announce, “orders up.” Even the tablets and pens along the counter-tops do not initially alert customers to the differing service protocol.
“It wasn’t until I saw the workers signing to one another that I realized I’d found my way into Starbucks’ first Signing Store. The first U.S. location, the Signing Store builds upon the company’s ongoing efforts to connect with the diverse communities it serves. Located near The Gallaudet University – the world's only university designed to be barrier-free for Deaf and hard of hearing students – the store makes socializing Deaf-friendly.
In its first year, Starbucks hired 20-25 Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing partners from across the country to work at the Signing Store with a requirement that all be proficient in American Sign Language (ASL). This team of partners with a shared language of ASL and diverse experiences with the Deaf and hard of hearing community will help to attract and develop talent, as well as raise awareness and understanding of the Deaf experience in the workforce, including career opportunities at Starbucks and beyond.
“The National Association of the Deaf applauds Starbucks for opening a Signing Store that employs Deaf and hard of hearing people,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. “Starbucks has taken an innovative approach to incorporating Deaf Culture that will increase employment opportunities as well as accessibility for Deaf and hard of hearing people, while at the same time educating and enlightening society.”
The idea to open a Signing Store in the U.S. was inspired by a similar Starbucks Signing Store which opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2016 with nine Deaf partners.
Starbucks partners in the U.S. voiced the opportunity to create a similar third-place experience for the Deaf and hard of hearing community in the U.S., and traveled to Malaysia last July for the first-year anniversary to understand design modifications and gain knowledge to create the best possible store experience for Deaf and hard of hearing customers in the U.S. An internal team made up of Starbucks Deaf Leadership, Accessibility office and Access Alliance is playing a critical role to support this historic store opening.
Eric Aster, a regular at the Signing Store, said that the location has encouraged him to learn a few words in ASL to help him communicate – not just his Starbucks order, but also have conversations with the servers he considers friends.
“I used to attend a church where we signed a hymn each service and from that experience, I wanted to learn more,” Aster told ACUMEN. “This store has given me an opportunity, informally, to pick up words, phrases, and have meaningful engagements with some really great people.”
The store features exclusive artwork and a custom mug designed by a Deaf artist, and a variety of enhancements to support the Deaf and hard of hearing partner and customer experience. Deaf baristas have ASL aprons embroidered by a Deaf supplier, and hearing partners who sign have an “I Sign” pin. These initiatives were created and sponsored by the Deaf Leadership of the Starbucks Access Alliance.
“Starbucks is to be commended for their affirmative approach to employing people with disabilities, in this case persons who are Deaf and hard of hearing,” said Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa who was instrumental in introducing the Americans with Disabilities Act. “I know Starbucks will find Deaf and hard of hearing persons to be their most loyal, competent and reliable employees. Customers will enjoy interacting with these partners and perhaps learning a few good signs with their coffee.”