Imagine being able to walk into a store and easily communicate with the employees inside. While that’s likely something you experience regularly, most people who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t have that privilege.
Wanting to take steps toward inclusivity, Starbucks created what they refer to as the Signing Store. Every single worker there is fluent in American Sign Language, whether they’re able to hear or not.
It all started with a call to Margaret Houston, who was tasked with being the district manager of this first-of-its-kind store, located in Northeast D.C. The new store would replace the existing Starbucks there.
Over the course of a year, Margaret dove headfirst into learning about the deaf community’s needs and worked hard to hire and train the right employees. Throughout the process, she has become a more passionate ally, and she hopes hearing customers will have a similar experience when they visit.
“You have to be willing to be uncomfortable for a while so you can take in what’s happening. In order for us all to continue to grow, and to be inclusive, we have to be open to change,” Margaret said. “So that’s what I’ve done.”
The Signing Store is located blocks away from Gallaudet University. Founded in 1864, this renowned school is the only one in the world designed to educate deaf and hard-of-hearing students in ASL and English.
Not only has their close proximity to the university provided students and faculty with a welcoming place to get coffee, but they are also offering employment opportunities. This is especially important because, no matter their education or qualifications, the unemployment rate is incredibly high for the deaf community.
Matthew Gilsbach, whose family discovered he was deaf when he was 18 months old, understands this from personal experience. Despite graduating with a master’s degree eight years ago, he’s had a hard time finding a job in his field.
“There is fear of it being a risk to hire Deaf individuals,” Matthew said, “and a lot of companies are not willing to take that risk.”
Fast forward to today and Matthew is the store’s manager! Now, he’s able to help others in his community in ways he never could have imagined. Each deaf or hard-of-hearing employee wears an apron that has the ASL finger spelling of Starbucks embroidered on the front. Meanwhile, hearing employees wear pins that say, “I sign.”
“This store hopefully also shows what’s possible, opportunity-wise. As a Deaf person, you can have a job and you can have money and you can have life skills. And you can engage with people in the signing and non-signing community,” he said. “I’m excited to start this journey and to see what the Deaf and hearing communities can do together.”
The Signing Store is the perfect place for hearing customers to get better insight into deaf culture. Simply walking in and ordering a coffee gives them an opportunity to better see how those who use sign language interact. Plus, the store provides fun ways for everyone to learn ASL.
For example, above the register, they have a chalkboard. Each week, a new sign is displayed so their customers can learn how to communicate with their barista in sign language, should they choose.
One barista, Crystal Harris, understands what it’s like to be part of both the hearing community and the deaf community. She identifies as hard of hearing, and while existing in both worlds hasn’t always been easy, places like the Signing Store give her hope for the future.
“This store will represent what it means to bring communities together,” Crystal said. “All of them.”
Starbucks, which has over 200 deaf employees, wants this to be the first step of many toward making the world more inclusive, and not just within their own company.
“We really want people to experience the excitement of talking to somebody differently than they might have before,” said Marthalee Galeota, the senior manager for accessibility at Starbucks. “All the barriers are gone 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.”
Watch a clip of a customer who is deaf visiting the Signing Store below, and don’t forget to share this incredible story to brighten someone’s day.
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