The People Pressing Starbucks to Become More Inclusive of the D/deaf Community

The coffee giant has just opened its first sign language store in China, in which most employees have hearing loss and new technology has been introduced to make ordering as easy as possible.

05.07.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo on Starbucks
Photo on Starbucks

The world is becoming more understanding and inclusive of difference than it has ever been before. But, for many with hearing loss, huge barriers remain, particularly in the world of work. One expert estimates that 70% of the D/deaf community in the United States are unemployed. Part of this is prejudice, and part a lack of understanding about working with people who are deaf.

Starbucks, the coffee giant with stores in 76 countries, has spent the past few years quietly challenging this status quo. It recently announced the opening of a sign language café in Guangzhou, China, in which all staff would have hearing loss, and the principal form of communication would be sign language. The store is designed to be as inclusive as possible, with an easy ordering system using pads, doubled-sided display screens and numbered products; low glare surfaces; and sign language-focused artwork and merchandising.

This is a first for China, but not a first for Starbucks. It is actually the third such Starbucks store in existence, following the reworking of a branch in Washington, DC, near the university with the largest Deaf student population in the country, and the launch of a store in Kuala Lumpur in 2016. Each café is committed to providing new sorts of employment opportunities for people in the D/deaf community, which traditionally has struggled to progress beyond entry-level work and into management.

Propelling Starbucks is an internal team of employees that make up the Starbucks’ ‘Access Alliance,’ a group focused on improving accessibility and disability inclusion at the organisation. As a member of the leadership team, Jennifer Leland was involved in the planning and launch of the Starbucks signing store in Washington, DC, helping bring in concepts such as American Sign Language aprons for deaf employees and an ‘I Sign’ pin for hearing employees. Adam Novsam, a business analyst for Starbucks and another Deaf Leadership member, told the Washington Post he’d heard from “deaf communities all over the world that they wanted this space”—and that even as a Starbucks employee, he himself had sometimes struggled with communication barriers in shops.

They both built on the work of Sydney Quays, managing director of Starbucks Malaysia, who said the initiative, which opened in 2016, was part of creating a fulfilling workplace for people with disabilities. “We have a rich history of creating opportunities for underrepresented groups and our aim is to raise public awareness of the value people with disabilities bring to the workplace and to enrich the lives of many more Deaf partners [employees],” he told Business Insider.

In China, Starbucks has reportedly developed a relationship with Guangdong Deaf People Association to train people for professional skills through sign language. And Mathalee Galeota, senior manager for accessibility at Starbucks, told USA Today that the Washington initiative removed barriers “from being able to communicate, or from people being able to demonstrate their skills and show off the talent they have.

“We think this store celebrates the culture of human connection on a deep level.”

The advances follow a history of concerns about accessibility in the stores. In 2013, the company was sued by several Deaf patrons for alleged discrimination, with Starbucks stressing in response that it took the accusations very seriously and wants to provide an experience “that is culturally sensitive and inclusive of Deaf etiquette.” Similarly, in 2018, it faced renewed criticism after two black men were arrested for ‘trespassing’ in a Starbucks store while simply waiting at a table to begin a business meeting.

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