Starbucks store for the deaf opens: ordering coffee in sign language

The coffee chain opens its first branch for the deaf in the USA. The German Association of the Deaf would like to see the same trend in Germany.

All 24 employees in the new Starbucks branch speak American Sign Language Photo: Starbucks

S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S is written on the dark green parasol in front of the freshly opened coffee shop in the northeast of the city of Washington, D.C.. Nothing unusual, one might think. If it weren’t for the fact that the lettering is not conventional letters, but American Sign Language hand signs. Just a few blocks from Gaullaudet University – the world’s first university for the deaf – the coffee chain opened a new branch on Tuesday. The special feature: The coffee shop was designed for people who have difficulty hearing or cannot hear at all. With the deaf-friendly store, the US company wanted to show that it can work when customers with different needs come together.

The new coffee shop is staffed by 24 employees who themselves can either hear very poorly or not at all. They communicate with customers exclusively in American Sign Language. The employees wear aprons on which the sign "Starbucks" is also depicted.

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Also the signs in the store are additionally labeled with the hand signs. This way, even people who do not speak American Sign Language can communicate with the staff and other customers. It is also possible to place an order using a digital pad. As soon as the coffee is prepared, customers are informed of this by means of a large screen instead of being called by name, as is the case in other Starbucks stores.

For deaf customers, the Starbucks store was not only equipped with new technology, but also artistically redesigned. For example, one wall was completely decorated with a colorful painting by a deaf painter from Gallaudet University. The mural features a small "d" in sign language, representing deafness, as well as a large "D," representing deaf identity. Along with an eye and a hand holding a coffee mug, the image is meant to symbolize the blending of deaf and hearing people.

The mural is located just to the right of the Starbucks entrance Photo: Starbucks

Furniture has been adapted

The store was decorated in the so-called "Deaf Space" style. This means that the rooms have been designed so that there are multiple light sources. This is because in order to understand sign language well, diffuse light is better than blinding light. If there is too much shadow in the room, it is more difficult to communicate. That’s why the furniture and other fixtures were adapted accordingly.

The new store is based on the Starbucks Cafe for the Deaf in Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia, which opened two years ago. For employees, the Starbucks stores are an important step in creating new jobs for the deaf and raising awareness among hearing people, they told The Washington Post.

America as a model for Germany

The political officer of the German Federation of the Deaf (DGB), Daniel Buter, is very happy about the new Starbucks store: "I am thrilled about what is happening in America. There is a real deaf culture there, where people with and without hearing are truly equal. I would like to see this trend spill over into Germany as well." According to Buter, the reason for this culture is the strict American anti-discrimination policy, which is much weaker in Germany.

In addition to deaf-friendly bars and restaurants, the DGB would also welcome more visual signals on the roads and in traffic. Says Buter, "There’s already a lot there for the blind, but still too little for the deaf. For example, you can put additional LED lights on the sidewalk in front of a traffic light."

The German Federation of the Deaf also advocates that interpreter costs be covered in the private sector, he said, such as when shopping. And not only – as has been the case so far – in public law areas, such as visits to the doctor, in offices or in court.

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