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At a Starbucks located near a college for the deaf, all the baristas know ASL

Mikaela Lefrak Nov 29, 2018
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Sign language interpretation major student Nikolas Carapellatti (L) signs with deaf Gallaudet University student Rebecca Witzofsky outside the first Starbucks café staffed by employees who are partially or fully deaf and capable of communicating in American Sign Language in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23, 2018.
JIM WATSON / Getty Images

Starbucks has about 14,000 stores nationwide, and they all seem pretty similar. But one that opened recently in northeast Washington, D.C., offers a unique experience.

This Starbucks is much quieter than a typical location. No music is playing, and if you look around, you’ll notice the baristas are communicating in American Sign Language.

And, there are the other special features.

“We have a TV screen, so you know when your order is ready – your name is going to appear. The cash register is lower, so you can make eye contact and see people’s hands,” Matthew Gilsbach, the manager of the northeast D.C. store, said.

According to Gilsbach, 19 of the 25 people employed at this Starbucks are deaf. He is too. And all the employees at this Starbucks know American Sign Language.

Many people in this Washington, D.C., neighborhood are part of the community around Gallaudet University – the country’s only liberal arts college for the deaf. About 7,000 deaf and hard of hearing people currently live in the city.

Gayla Guignard, chief strategy officer at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing says the signing Starbucks makes sense – and it’s good for business.

“Just because a person is not deaf, or not hard of hearing, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t go to that store. It’s really important to have diversity in the marketplace,” Guignard said.

Hearing customers regularly visit the location too and ask to learn how to sign their names or their favorite coffee orders.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve seen a major brand, with stores in all kinds of locations, actually create something that’s for this specific group,” Guignard said.

Some businesses in the neighborhood keep areas well-lit so patrons can see well enough to sign and lip-read. Others have pens and paper handy so customers can write down their orders. One bar even hosts an ASL trivia night.

The only other “signing Starbucks” in the world is in Malaysia. It opened two years ago.

In the Washington, D.C., signing Starbucks, Gilsbach said he’s enjoying teaching customers how to sign their favorite seasonal drink order: pumpkin spice lattes.

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