Starbucks UK launches industry-leading training programme teaching store partners British Sign Language, elevating the Starbucks experience for deaf and hard of hearing customers 

The very first of its kind, Starbucks UK has launched a new training programme for its partners (employees) to learn British Sign Language, elevating the experience of deaf and hard of hearing customers and combatting the feelings of anxiety and isolation they may experience when interacting in retail settings.  

Made in partnership with the British Deaf Association (BDA) and tech platform Attensi, the gamified training app is an accessible, engaging way for Starbucks partners to learn everyday phrases including greetings, useful questions and beverage orders. So far, the industry leading initiative has been embraced by Starbucks partners across the UK in huge numbers. 

  • Over 11,000 partners have completed the entire course 
  • In more than 450 stores all partners have completed the training 
  • 95% of partners asked said they have a better understanding of the deaf community after taking part in the training 
  • 95% of partners asked said they’re excited to use what they’ve learned from the training in stores.  

But how did it all start? 

All of this began thanks to one incredible Starbucks partner: Toro Manca.  

Beginning his Starbucks journey in London in 2001 as a barista, Toro is now a District Manager for stores in south- west London. His passion for deaf awareness and teaching British Sign Language began when he was managing Canary Wharf’s Jubilee Place store, back in 2012.  

“We had a regular deaf customer who came into the store, and we tried our best to communicate with them, but we struggled and wanted to elevate that connection,” he tells me over a coffee in the store where it all began. “A lot of people see people signing and think, ‘I would love to learn that’, and I really did too, so I signed up to learn level one, which is an introduction to British Sign Language and deaf awareness.” 

Toro Manca

With the support of Starbucks, Toro soon completed levels two and three of the course, and became more and more involved with his local deaf community, making friends and learning of the hardships they face – especially when it comes to gaining employment. “People would tell me that they couldn’t get work because as soon as an employer saw a CV that stated deafness, they wouldn’t even interview them.. It became this dream of mine to help support the community and help get them into work.” 

Toro went on to achieve just that after reaching out to the Royal Association for Deaf People, who supported him in hiring 10 partners across stores in London. Now, almost all of the partners in the Jubilee Place store know how to sign, and with the success of the Attensi app Toro spearheaded, hopefully other UK stores will soon follow suit.  

“We’ve used Attensi training in-store for about 4 years, and I always thought, ‘Why don’t we do deaf awareness on here?’. I wasn’t sure if it would work because I went to college to learn British Sign Language, and there you have a teacher and classmates to interact with. I wasn’t sure how it would work on a mobile device, but we went for it. We shared our ideas with Attensi and they were super happy to try something new, as they’d never done this before either. It’s really worked and I’m so proud that this platform is supporting partners and customers.” 

How does it work?

Screenshots from the Attensi app

“We’re always up for a challenge at Attensi and this was definitely a challenging brief,” Trond Aas, Attensi’s CEO and co-founder says. “There really isn’t a training solution to compare to this. We had to be innovative right from the drawing board and break new ground to get the right levels of participation to achieve the impact we all wanted to achieve.”

“British Sign Language is very expressive – we had to ensure that we could convey this in the games for a realistic and relatable experience for the learner. One of the key tests in simulation and game-based training is to achieve realistic context for the games so that people can apply the skills they have learned in the virtual world in real-life scenarios.” 

“The design phase of this project was highly collaborative and iterative. We worked closely with deaf partners working at Starbucks and the British Deaf Association to come up with innovative ways to engage employees in repetition and practice of BSL communication. It was important to us to really understand the challenges that deaf people can face in day-to-day communications and help employees master the BSL skills that can help to improve the Starbucks experience for deaf people.”  

The impact

Rebecca Mansell, CEO of the British Deaf Association, says that the initiative marks a “significant leap” towards inclusivity, increasing awareness of the deaf community and ensuring equal experiences for all. “Everyone at the BDA is incredibly proud of this collaboration – it would be amazing to use this ground-breaking training as a case study for us to campaign for more inclusive practices across all businesses,” she continues. “I think this is something to be incredibly proud of – Starbucks has led the way and now it is time for others to follow suit.” 

“Every day, our partners support the communities in our stores and the neighbourhoods we are part of, working to improve the Starbucks Experience for all customers across the UK and ensure we create places where everyone feels welcome,” says Alex Rayner, General Manager at Starbucks UK. “I’m proud to see just how many partners have chosen to learn British Sign Language as part of this pioneering new training.” 

Toro has seen the positive impacts of this initiative firsthand in store. “Very often when I was working in Canary Wharf, customers would approach me and say how inspired they were leaving the store after watching deaf partners working with hearing partners and seeing how amazing they were at supporting each other,” he says. “For many, it was the highlight of their day before going to the office. I also discovered that a lot of customers learnt sign language themselves, whether they were saying thank you or ordering their coffee. It made me feel so proud.” 

He goes on to point out that the potential impacts of this kind of training could be even greater: “We know that 11 million people are deaf or hard of hearing in the UK – there’s such a big opportunity in that to inspire and make others feel more welcome in Starbucks stores. Inclusion always has, and always will be, so important.” 

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