Starbucks Is Opening A Signing Store Specifically For Deaf & Hard Of Hearing Customers In The U.S.

A recent press release reports that Starbucks is opening a Signing Store near Gallaudet University, a four year university for the Deaf and hard of hearing community in Washington, D.C. this coming October. The new Signing Store aims to “create a distinctive retail experience for all customers while offering a unique store format that promotes accessibility and offers employment and career advancement opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing people,” the press release states.

For many Deaf and hard of hearing folks, navigating a world that's designed for hearing people can be complex. Adam Novsam, a Deaf utility analyst at Starbucks' Seattle headquarters, described his experiences to NPR, noting that even the simplest interactions in the hearing world can be frustrating. “Before I go into any store, I’m anticipating and figuring out how I’m going to order and communicate. Typically, it’s not an easy or smooth experience.”

“Sometimes I’ll try to lipread, and that often results in misunderstanding my order, especially if they have a question. Sometimes I will gesture for pen and paper and the person will appear annoyed with me or seem exasperated that it is taking extra time,” Novsam said.

Such experiences led Novsam and other Deaf and hard of hearing community members to head up the Starbucks Deaf Leadership Group in order to push for a Signing Store stateside. BuzzFeed reports that the new D.C. store is modeled after Starbucks’ first Deaf-friendly location in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is set to feature design modifications to “create the best possible store experience for Deaf and hard of hearing customers in the U.S.”

The coffee chain will hire 20 to 25 Deaf or hard of hearing employees for the new Gallaudet Signing Store, and American Sign Language (ASL) fluency will be a requirement for all staff members. Hearing staff members will also wear “I Sign” pins, and embroidered aprons for Deaf baristas will feature ASL. The new location will also highlight artwork and mug designs by Deaf artists, Starbucks’ press release further notes.

"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," Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, was quoted as saying in the press release.

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In order to better accommodate the unique needs of Deaf and hard of hearing customers, NPR reports that the Signing Store will feature low-glare surfaces to minimize eye strain and concentration fatigue, which can be caused by relying solely on one's hands to communicate. HearingLikeMe explains that concentration fatigue is often caused by lip reading, and by signing and listening to others for long periods of time. The store will also feature spatial design aimed to give adequate room and open space for signing hands.

The new stateside Signing Store is part of Starbucks’ ongoing effort to increase visibility and inclusivity for the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Perhaps this launch will leads to more signing locations nationwide, as well as increased Deaf-friendly initiatives on the part of other businesses. For now, it’s great to see a major chain leveraging its visibility and influence to make the everyday experience of getting a cup of coffee more accessible for everyone.