New Starbucks merch honors disability community with a message of care

A collage of three Starbucks tumblers on a pink background

There is more than just joy and beauty in illustrator Ananya Rao-Middleton’s new collection of merchandise for Starbucks. There’s a message too. The words “Care in Community” seem to best express her experience as a woman of color living with multiple sclerosis and post-concussion syndrome.  

“I wanted to create something that epitomizes my experience being a disabled person and having access to the disabled community,” Rao-Middleton said. “One of the key parts of being in the disabled community that has meant so much to me has been the amount of care that I've received from people within that community. We just uplift and care for each other so beautifully.” 

“I wanted to create something that epitomizes my experience being a disabled person and having access to the disabled community,” Rao-Middleton said.

Rao-Middleton’s designs for Starbucks will be available in U.S. company-owned and licensed stores starting today (June 25) in time to honor Disability Pride Month in July. Her collection is the latest in the Starbucks Artist Collaboration program, which celebrates and elevates the voices and stories of artists from around the world. 

“I wanted something that would resonate broadly with people even though it was speaking to my unique experiences as a disabled person,” she said. “A universal human experience is experiencing care and experiencing community.” 

Rao-Middleton’s journey as an artist began after a traumatic brain injury in 2018 left her homebound. She picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. She continued during her MS diagnosis in 2019, and beyond.  

“I started to tell my story through the paintings that I was creating. I believe that solid storytelling is something that makes a huge difference in creative work, and it creates a very powerful way to interact with people and help them to translate concepts that might sometimes be a little bit hard to talk about or to read about,” she said. 

What will she think when she sees people holding pieces from her collection?  

“I think more than anything, I just hope that people – whoever they are, see themselves in the artwork and feel a warm feeling inside,” she said. 

24-ounce plastic water bottle 

The collection’s water bottle features bright blooms with Rao-Middleton’s words of care expressed in a high contrast between text and background to ensure accessibility.  

“I wanted the message to be as bright and colorful as possible,” she said. “I'm one of those people that just really enjoys playing with color and playing with things that mean a lot to me in my life. Plants and flowers are things that I use in my day to day to regulate my nervous system and to unplug, so I really tried to integrate that into my artwork as well – that's where all the components came together.” 

16-ounce stainless steel tumbler 

Rao-Middleton’s steel tumbler features a grouping of figures with their arms clasped around each other in friendship.  

“I think it's always important for me to include as many different kinds of disabilities as possible,” she said. The sunflower is a symbol for invisible disabilities. “I decided to include the sunflower as a shoutout to people with invisible illnesses and disabilities who may recognize the symbol. It’s a bit of quiet recognition.” 

24-ounce plastic cold cup 

A community garden was the inspiration for the 24-ounce plastic cold design. “I was thinking about how to represent community for me, and I thought about the idea of collaboration, collective care,” she said. “Care doesn't have to be complicated – it is a beautiful and compassionate thing.” 

Upholding a culture of warmth and belonging 

Since the earliest days of the company, Starbucks has worked to create a culture of warmth and belonging in its stores – a place where everyone is welcome. This includes Starbucks collection of artwork featured at stores that celebrate community, 23 Signing Stores across the globe, free access to Aira services that help blind or low vision customers navigate the cafe, Disability Advocacy Partner Network (employee resource group) which has contributed to the success of Starbucks partners and the company since 2016 and its new Inclusive Spaces Framework

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