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Starbucks Launches First US 'Signing' Store for Deaf Employees

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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Most of us can still remember our very first job: that intimidating interview with the boss; the lengthy, chatty conversation with questions about goals and how this entry-level job would fit into our dreams and aspirations; the training sessions and the discussions on the do’s and don’ts for keeping that very first paycheck.

But for a sector of the U.S. population, that very scenario presents enormous challenges to becoming employed. According to research conducted by Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., there is a marked disparity between hearing Americans and those who struggle with moderate and severe hearing loss.

Research published in 2001 found that while 82 percent of people in prime earning years – 18 to 44 – were employed, only 58 percent of those with moderate to severe hearing loss were in the workforce. Education statistics were similar: 12.8 percent of the hearing population graduated from college. Less than half that number (5.1 percent) of hard-of-hearing and severely deaf individuals graduated from college. Post-college education levels were similar, with 9.1 percent of hearing individuals going on to attain graduate studies compared to 4.8 percent of hard-of-hearing or severely deaf individuals in the U.S.

This month Starbucks Coffee announced that it plans to tackle that problem. Its first U.S. training store for deaf and hard-of-hearing employees will open in Washington in October and will be situated adjacent to Gallaudet University, which serves the deaf and hard-of-hearing population.

The concept for the store is actually based on one the company opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2016 and is run by employees who are either deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Starbucks plans to hire approximately two dozen deaf or hard-of-hearing partners and run the store much like the one in Malaysia. Customers will order using cards that they fill out at the counter and baristas will communicate with customers in writing rather than verbal. Sign language, rather than spoken English, will be the dominant language spoken by staff.

The store, which has been several years in the planning, is tailored to meet the needs of the local community, which in this case will be mainly the students and staff at Gallaudet. Community gathering areas will have low-glare furniture to help make it easier for customers to sit and chat in sign language.

More than 1,000 students from 25 countries attend Gallaudet, which is the country's oldest undergraduate school for hearing-impaired students. Starbucks' decision to open its second signing store adjacent to the campus is smart planning that has garnered the enthusiastic support of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

"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," said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of NAD.

The announcement comes on the heels of Starbucks' recent efforts to increase racial sensitivity within its staff, and to provide leadership in changing the conversation around multiculturalism. The company's decision to open a signing store in the nation's capitol sends an important message to lawmakers about the need to support all minorities, irrespective of the language they speak and the culture they hail from. And it gives all of us the gentle reminder that diversity isn't just defined by what we see or know about multiculturalism, but by those we have an opportunity to learn about and embrace.

Image credits: Starbucks

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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