Starbucks Surprises Deaf Customer With Sign Language Exchange

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Starbucks deaf ASL barista

Starbucks is in the news, and it isn’t for their #RedCups (hey Starbucks…you skipped Thanksgiving).

Rebecca King was able to use sign language to place her order at a St. Augustine, Florida, Starbucks location thanks to the store’s new drive-thru video screen. King was thrilled that the barista, Katie Wyble, was able to communicate with her in sign language.

King returned the next day to capture the exchange on video and promptly posted it on Facebook.

With more than 6 million views and counting, King told WTLV in Jacksonville, Florida, that she was surprised by the support, “It is a big deal to (the) deaf community that Starbucks has one now. Nowhere else has that!” said King. “We all want to have that at every drive thru in the world.”

The java chain is adding drive-thru video screens to 2,400 U.S. stores in hopes of boosting sales and customer convenience. Unlike the drive-thru screens at many fast-food chains, the Starbucks screens allow customers to see the barista’s face when placing an order.

“It’s about that customer-barista connection,” said Haley Drage, a Starbucks spokeswoman told Bloomberg. The screens join Starbucks technology ranks along with their new mobile ordering and mobile phone payments.

Wyble is a communications major at the University of North Florida and has studied American Sign Language since grade school. “I’ve had a passion for sign language since I first saw a teacher use it when I was in preschool, and I’ve studied ASL ever since,” said Wyble, who’s been a Starbucks partner (employee) since May.

As part of its corporate citizenship commitment to diversity, Starbucks also prides itself on welcoming employees with disabilities, as it has done for two decades. Things weren’t always so rosy between the deaf community and Starbucks, which released a statement in 2013 asserting that it supported the deaf community following a lawsuit claiming it discriminated against deaf customers.

Yet in the company’s hometown of Seattle, a deaf-friendly store on The East Olive Way has served as a pioneer by hiring partners (employees) with some basic sign language.

As noted by Deaf Friendly in 2012, “Not hired simply for a technical ability to crank out drinks, baristas are the front-line for deaf patrons. With one store manager and over 30 partners (employees), three partners are fluent in ASL and two of them are currently studying to become ASL Interpreters nearby at Seattle Central Community College.”

So, what defines deaf-friendliness, anyway? “Eye contact, cultural respect, and an upbeat attitude,” a spokesperson for Starbucks told the website. “We think that being ‘deaf-friendly’ is all of that, plus flexibility in communication – especially since this can vary widely with Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Deaf-Blind customers.”

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