Starbucks sign language aprons open communication between Deaf baristas and customers in the U.S.

By Kelly Sheppard / Starbucks Newsroom

An estimated 360 million people worldwide have a hearing loss. Katie Giles, a Starbucks barista in Washington, D.C., is one of them.

Communicating with hearing people at work over the past seven years has been at times “very unpleasant,” Giles shared over the phone, using an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter provided through a video telecommunications service.

So, she set out to find a solution, one that would improve communication in her store and others across the country.

Earlier this month, green aprons with “Starbucks” embroidered in ASL fingerspelling were distributed to more than 50 baristas at the company who have identified as Deaf. The aprons, recommended by Giles, serve as both a visual cue for customers and a point of Deaf cultural pride.

The road to understanding and acceptance

The partners at Giles’ first Starbucks store in Frederick, Md., didn’t know sign language, but found ways to communicate with her. They wrote notes and tapped her when they needed to get her attention. Giles’ primary role was to make drinks after her co-workers took orders from the drive-through window.

“There were several Deaf customers who were regulars at the store, so my manager and other partners had exposure to communicating with Deaf people,” she said. “They were really supportive and helped me find a comfortable place in the store.”

In 2013, Giles transferred to a busy store in Washington, D.C. when she enrolled at Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Her work experience suffered with a manager unaccustomed to working with a Deaf partner and who was frustrated by the communications barrier.

“My manager would give me instructions when my back was turned, so I couldn’t read her lips. She would write me up for not getting my job done,” said Giles. “I wasn’t offered the role I had in my previous store, so I had more direct interaction with customers who didn’t know I was Deaf. They got upset if I didn’t respond or misinterpreted their drinks.”

It was an emotional year for Giles who found it difficult to successfully advocate for her needs. She began to question her future at Starbucks until she met Adam Novsam and Marthalee Galeota – both partners at Starbucks Seattle headquarters – at a Gallaudet University job expo in 2014. The three brainstormed ideas for improving the work life for Deaf partners and Giles hit on an idea.

“On a break during the expo, I told Adam and Marthalee how veterans and military spouses in my store had received patriotic green aprons with an American flag embroidered on the front,” Giles said. “I thought that creating something similar with a symbol to distinguish Deaf partners could be helpful.”

Starbucks Malaysia store leads the way

Novsam, who is Deaf and a business analyst with Starbucks Facilities and Environmental Performance Management team, agreed to help Giles by investigating how the patriotic aprons were made. Several months into his research, Novsam learned about a Starbucks store in Malaysia where partners communicate in Malaysian Sign Language and wear aprons with "Starbucks" embroidered in finger spelling across the front.

The store, which opened in Kuala Lumpur in July 2016, is the first of its kind for Starbucks and aims to provide a career path and sense of belonging for Deaf people. Starbucks Malaysia worked in close partnership with The Society of Interpreters for the Deaf to facilitate the hiring, training and coaching of the store’s nine Deaf partners who not only use sign language, but also take orders using menu cards and handwritten notes. The store also employs four hearing partners who are proficient in sign language.

The Malaysia store’s aprons served as inspiration for making similar aprons in the U.S. “But first, we needed to find the right company to create them,” Novsam said.

First Deaf supplier for Starbucks

Angie Foster, who has been Deaf since birth, operated a graphics embroidery business out of her home for eight years before opening an EmbroidMe franchise in Frederick, Md. in 2014. Galeota asked Foster to take on the apron project.

“We were intent on finding a Deaf supplier, the first for Starbucks” said Galeota. “Angie’s work is stellar and we hope this visibility will bring more business her way.”

“I was thrilled to embroider aprons for Deaf baristas at Starbucks,” she said. “I can see other businesses taking Starbucks lead and wanting to do similar projects.”

Building inclusion

With the first order of aprons developed, Giles and Novsam sought a system for distributing aprons to future Deaf partners who join the company. They called on Sevana Massih, a Deaf district manager in Berkeley, California, for help.

Massih, who has been with Starbucks for 14 years, played an integral role in establishing a centralized budget for the company's accommodations process, which provides services and tools for those with disabilities. For Deaf partners this includes interpreter services, electronic white boards for taking orders from customers and flashing timers to indicate when coffee has brewed; now the sign language aprons are part of the package available to them.

“Having these aprons will unify the Deaf community at Starbucks and empower us to share our culture,” she said.

Novsam believes that the aprons will attract more Deaf talent. “The aprons will help the company to shine especially within the Deaf community,” he said.

Katie Giles is proud to show people that Starbucks is a welcoming environment for both Deaf partners and customers.

“People are curious and tend to look at me with more of a friendly face when they enter my store and see me in the apron,” she said. “I’ve even learned that some of my customers know a bit of sign language, which they had not used because they didn’t know I was Deaf. My relationship with customers has totally changed.”

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