During Disability Pride Month, Starbucks partners share their stories – and how to be a better ally

Collage of Starbucks partners (employees) featured in this story

This July, Starbucks recognizes Disability Pride Month, which celebrates the anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The month is an opportunity to promote inclusion and visibility of people with disabilities and to redefine public perception of disability. Read the stories of Starbucks partners who share how they have found pride and strength in their identities, and their suggestions on how we can all be better allies and address the stigma toward people with disabilities. For resources where you can learn more, go here.

In her role as a Starbucks senior facilities manager in Maryland, Stephanie sometimes gets to coach people on their personal and professional development, and what it means to bring their authentic selves to work. But she realized she wasn’t following her own advice.

Stephanie seated, wearing Disability Pride Month t-shirt

“I was asking people: share your personal journey, tell me about what shaped you,” she says. “But I felt like I was hiding this secret. I wasn’t sharing a part of my life. That’s been the journey of this last year, to come forward and tell people that I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder. I’m getting comfortable saying that to hopefully inspire others to do the same.”

Over the last few years, Stephanie, 40, has also walked the walk by becoming a leader of the mid-Atlantic chapter of the Starbucks Disability Advocacy Network, a partner (employee) resource group. She’s committed to speaking up for her young niece, who has a disability; and by educating herself and others on issues relevant to the disability community – topics such as ableism, the prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities of all kinds, apparent and non-apparent.

“If you want to be a good ally, I’ve learned you have to recognize and be OK with not knowing everything, and knowing you’re going to make mistakes and be in situations where people correct you,” Stephanie says. “It’s OK. It’s going to take time. It’s not a sprint. It’s small steps.”

Specifically, for those wanting to interrupt their biases and be good allies to people living with disabilities, she suggests the following:

Get to know the person first, before the disability. Don’t make assumptions that people with disabilities need or want to be fixed or saved. Educate yourself on the latest terminology. Recognize that disability is only one part of a person’s identity. Listen and ask questions. Check yourself and others on what you say (for example, do you really mean it when you offhandedly say, “Oh, I’m so ADD” if you don’t actually have attention deficit disorder?). Join the work, whether it’s writing senators or volunteering with a human-rights campaign or a disability organization.

'Teach children to say hello, instead of stare’

Rosie, 22, a Starbucks barista in New Hampshire, graduated with honors in May from the University of New Hampshire, where she majored in journalism. In college, she interned for a local newspaper and recently, she started a part-time marketing job at The Music Hall, a culture, arts and community hub near her home.

She lives with Congenital Myasthenic Syndrome, or CMS, a neuromuscular disorder so rare that it wasn’t diagnosed until she was 16 years old. CMS weakens every muscle in her body. Her vocal cords are paralyzed. Her entire life, she’s used a feeding tube to eat.  

Rosie smiling, wearing Starbucks apron, standing behind the bar

But she can text and type (“writing is my voice, my strong voice,” she says), and for years, kept a blog musing on her life and disability, with insightful entries on her daily routines, the intersection of fashion and disability and “How to Respond to Stares and Unasked Questions.”

Through a text conversation, she shared some of her experiences, such as how she’s found ways to adapt and succeed as a barista.

“I have note cards with common questions like ‘Cream and sugar?’ ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘Would you like that warmed up?’ and so on, because I have a weak voice and it’s hard to hear. I also use the notes app on my phone to communicate. I sign, but not enough people know American Sign Language.”

Rosie said she appreciates when customers treat her as they would any other barista and assume she’s good at her job. She wants people to see the real person and push past the stereotypes and unfair judgments – that people with disabilities are all cognitively impacted or can’t think for themselves, or that all people with disabilities ask for accommodations because they want special treatment.

“I have had a few people ask me ‘if I’m able to take their order’ or ‘if I’m capable’ and things like that which annoyed me more than anything because why would I be here if I couldn’t? So that bias and stigma is still around but thankfully more and more people are becoming aware.”

Being a good ally can start early. Parents can “teach children to say hello instead of not to stare, don’t be nervous to approach people with disabilities, and be the one to strike a conversation with them,” she wrote on her blog. “Trust me, it will make someone’s day.”

‘We’re all just people at the end of the day’

Before joining Starbucks recently as a store manager in Southern California, Joe spent 15 years in the restaurant business, eight of them as a chef. When COVID-19 became a pandemic and everyone started wearing masks, Joe realized he was suddenly deprived of his primary communication tool: reading lips.

Joe, 28, was born in Guam, unable to fully hear sounds – especially whispers or anything said behind him. When he moved to San Diego, he attended a school for deaf children, and doctors eventually diagnosed him with otosclerosis, a condition caused by the abnormal growth of the tiny bones inside the ears that commonly contributes to hearing loss.

“Growing up, I was classified as Deaf,” Joe says. “I was very ashamed of my hearing. I was embarrassed. I thought if people found out, they wouldn’t want to be my friend, wouldn’t want to talk to me, wouldn’t want to hire me. So I taught myself how to read lips, read the room. I taught myself things to be and feel normal. I wore hearing aids as a little kid, but after a while I would take them off when I got to school… I saw how other kids would act toward kids with disabilities.”

In culinary school and in commercial kitchens, he found he could communicate enough to get by, especially because he didn’t have to interact too often with customers. But recently, his twin girls – with the help of his wife and his father-in-law – gifted him with a new pair of hearing aids.

They were an unexpected blessing. He heard sounds he’d never heard clearly before – his adult voice, a car engine roaring, the water line in his refrigerator drawing water to make ice at night, the bell of an elevator. They also gave him the confidence to seek out community and a career outside his comfort zone, which led him to take the job at Starbucks.

“I started to embrace my Deafness and decided I want to learn more about it and inspire other people with deafness,” Joe says. “Who knows, maybe there’s a handful of partners (employees) out there who are afraid or embarrassed to share. I want to let them know it’s alright. We’re all just people at the end of the day.

“I think the biggest message for me is don’t be afraid of someone with a disability or don’t think that you can’t approach them. You don’t need to make the disability the focal point, the talk about the disability will come eventually. You don’t need to lead with the disability. Just talk to them like any other regular person. You connect, you talk, and then eventually, the disability will come up.”

Finding a deeper connection

Can a disability be a strength? Malia, a Starbucks store manager in Nevada, thinks so.

In her 20s, Malia left a human resources job at a major resort firm because of the symptoms of her social anxiety disorder – feelings of impending doom, physical and mental exhaustion after presentations, extreme discomfort around people. It even kept her from interviewing for another job she really wanted.

"The thought of the interview and having to talk to people, it was just overwhelming. I couldn't go, I couldn't get out of bed," Malia recalls. "The average person is anxious from time to time. For me, it’s debilitating. It's a thing that really dictates how I live my life – where I go, when I go, if I go."

At times, her disability felt worse because of the cultural stigma against disability she feels exists in the Black community.

“We’ve been through so much – hundreds of years of racism, segregation, systems of inequity,” says Malia, whose family is from Ghana. “There’s this thought in the Black community, you have to be strong no matter what. When you’re sad, you have to get over it.

“A lot of the feedback I’ve received is: you don’t talk enough, speak up, stop being shy. There’s this inability and sometimes an unwillingness to believe that this is not a choice. I’m not choosing to be quiet.”

But perspectives change with time. And Malia, now 40, sees how her diagnosed disability – as painful as it has been, as painful as it still is – has also allowed her to create community with people in unexpected ways, both professionally and personally.

“Because I have social anxiety, I approach every social situation from an observational stance,” she explains. “I’m very in tune with how people feel, how they’re reacting, how they’re doing. And as I’m more vulnerable and I talk about my social anxiety more openly, it allows other people to drop their guard. It’s allowed them to be very vulnerable about things they’re struggling with – mental health issues, physical issues.”

When people are real with each other, it can allow for deeper conversation and connection, she says. For example, her store partners have become more sensitive to what customers are going through and have a better understanding of “how they can make all people feel included in our space.”

“Part of social anxiety is this constant nagging, this sense, a voice, that you’re alone,” Malia explains, but “if you can block out that voice, I know I have friends because I’m thoughtful, because I listen, because I’m empathetic and understanding of other people’s challenges. That is a place, if you can get there, that makes you feel it’s OK.”

To learn more, visit these resources:

This To Be Welcoming course from Arizona State University analyzes the social construction of ability—or how the concept of normal is created by social conditions, power and other factors to create inequalities for those with less access.

A leading nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide. 

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‘By us and for us:’ New Starbucks merch inspired by LGBTQ+ community