Starbucks opens first sign language store in US

American coffee giant Starbucks opened its first "signing store" in the United States in north-east Washington near the campus of Gallaudet.
American coffee giant Starbucks opened its first "signing store" in the United States in north-east Washington near the campus of Gallaudet.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • Ms Rebecca Witzofsky, a 20-year-old deaf student at Gallaudet University in Washington, and her hearing friend Nikolas Carapellatti wanted to get a coffee.

But on Tuesday, Ms Witzofsky finally did not have to struggle to make her order understood.

American coffee giant Starbucks opened its first "signing store" in the United States in north-east Washington near the campus of Gallaudet, the world's only university with an entire curriculum designed to accommodate the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

At the store, all staff - most of them deaf or hard-of-hearing themselves - are required to communicate with customers using sign language.

The cafe is modelled after a store that opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2016.

At first glance, it does not look any different from a regular Starbucks, seen on seemingly every other street corner in the US capital.

Employees wearing black shirts and green aprons emblazoned with the company logo scurry behind the counter to serve hot drinks, cold drinks and pastries to eager customers.

But despite the crowd - perhaps unusually big for mid-morning on a Tuesday - the cafe enjoyed a surprising calm, probably because most conversations were held in silence.

For Ms Witzofsky, it was a revelation.

"It gives deaf people space off-campus, a place to come to and socialise, eat food with other deaf people and meet other deaf people as well, and the deaf employees," she said.

"When I go to a normal Starbucks, I either talk and hope they can hear me and understand, or I show them my order on my phone," she said.

"Here, your name appears on a screen, which I really like because when they call my order, I don't have to try to hear it - it's right on the screen."

The store has other specific features designed to embrace and celebrate deaf culture - one is the "sign of the week".

Right now, it is for coffee: two closed fists, one on top of the other, rotating in a move that brings to mind a coffee grinder.

There are also special mugs for sale with designs by a deaf artist.

Starbucks says the initiative is aimed at bringing diverse communities together.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline 'Starbucks opens first sign language store in US'. Print Edition | Subscribe