Upon first glance, Starbucks' new branch in Washington D.C., looks like any of the nearly 30,000 Starbucks stores worldwide. But, beyond the classic green mermaid branding and familiar smell of freshly ground coffee beans, the new location on a block of H Street Northeast boasts something very new: It's Starbucks' inaugural American Sign Language (ASL) store.
The new store is located nearby Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing. And, when one takes a closer look, there are a few key things that set this location apart from the rest: The store features exclusive artwork and a mug designed by a deaf artists as well as a number of logistical enhancements designed to support deaf and hard of hearing customers, such as tablets for people who prefer to write down their orders and umbrellas with Starbucks written in both English and ASL fingerspelling. Also, unlike any other Starbucks in the world, this one doesn't play music.
Deaf or hard of hearing baristas at this store will wear ASL aprons embroidered by a Deaf supplier, and hearing partners who know how to sign will wear an “I Sign” pin. Starbucks hired 20-25 deaf, hard of hearing and hearing partners from across the country to work at this new store with a requirement of proficiency in ASL. The hope is that this team will help attract and develop talent while also raising awareness and empathy for deaf workers in the workplace.
As of 2016, only 48% of deaf individuals were employed, compared to 72% of hearing individuals. These findings are concerning, but deaf-centric initiatives such as this one are evidence that conversations are changing, and that inclusivity efforts can take many different forms. The initiative was created and sponsored by the Deaf Leadership of the Starbucks Access Alliance and incorporates aspects of Deaf Space, including an open environment for communication and low glare reflective surfaces.
"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."