Starbucks Brings Signing Store Concept to U.S. Deaf Community

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Starbucks deaf partner ASL apron

Starbucks is opening its first U.S. Signing Store in Washington, D.C., which will provide employment opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing people as a part of the company’s ongoing commitment to inclusion, accessibility and diversity.

All employees, or partners as Starbucks calls them, at the location will be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) to drive greater connection with the Deaf and hard of hearing community.

Starbucks drew inspiration from its own ASL aprons last year and its first-ever Signing Store, which opened in Malaysia in 2016, but it also follows a 2013 lawsuit claiming that the brand discriminated against deaf people, which it denied, and a 2015 lawsuit by a deaf former employee. That’s the same year a video of another U.S. employee who learned to sign for her customers went viral.

Now it’s actively wooing deaf and hard of hearing customers and employees alike in a model that attempts to scale one of the most meaningful ways a brand can show it cares for customers—by learning their language.

Other brands’ outreach to the Deaf and hard of hearing community includes Amazon’s ASL version of its logo and (more recently) making its voice platform accessible with the Echo Show “Tap to Alexa” feature. Other examples include Chick-fil-A’s signing cashier; Disney’s signing Pluto character; and Burger King releasing its “Whopper Sign” campaign to commemorate ASL Day on April 15th, 2016.

Now Starbucks will open its first Signing Store in Washington, D.C. this October, building upon ongoing efforts to connect with the diverse communities it serves. A team of Deaf Starbucks partners (employees) and allies led the effort to launch this unique store model in the U.S., which will be located at 6th & H Street near Gallaudet University, a bustling hub that is Deaf-friendly.

The store will 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.

Starbucks celebrates deaf partners

“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.”

Creating Opportunities with the Deaf Community

Starbucks will hire 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.

“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 executive vice president of U.S. Retail. “This store is truly from partners, for partners, and we couldn’t have gotten here without the team of Deaf partners and allies from our Accessibility office and the Access Alliance partner network who came together to bring this vision to life. I look forward to the team welcoming the community to this store in October.”

Starbucks US deaf partner Adam with ASL apron

Designing the First U.S. Signing Store

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.

The store will feature 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 will have ASL aprons embroidered by a Deaf supplier, and hearing partners who sign will have an “I Sign” pin.

These initiatives were created and sponsored by the Deaf Leadership of the Starbucks Access Alliance. The store will also incorporate aspects of Deaf Space, including an open environment for communication and low glare reflective surfaces. For customers new to sign language, the store will offer communication options for ordering and receiving beverages at the hand-off counter.

“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.”

Gallaudet student Selena Alvarez commented on the news: “After watching Adam, a Deaf partner and utility analyst at Starbucks who is a part of the Deaf Leadership Group for Starbucks, explain the vision behind this new Signing Starbucks (watch above), I was more at ease knowing that Deaf people are working together to ensure the store is successful and respectful of the community.”

Below, showing the global opportunity for Starbucks to continue expanding Signing Stores, meet another deaf Starbucks employee who signs with customers in South Korea:

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