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Wednesday Oct 24 2018

Starbucks opens first sign language store in US

Students Nikolas Carapellatti and Rebecca Witzofsky (R) at the opening of the first Starbucks "signing store" in the United States -- in the capital Washington. Photo; AFP

Rebecca Witzofsky, a 20-year-old hearing-impaired student at Gallaudet University in Washington, and her hearing friend Nikolas Carapellatti wanted to get a coffee.

But on Tuesday, Witzofsky finally didn't have to struggle to make her order understood.

US coffee giant Starbucks opened its first "signing store" in the United States in northeast Washington near the campus of Gallaudet, the world's only university with an entire curriculum designed to accommodate the hearing-impaired and hard-of-hearing.

At the store, all staff — most of them hearing-impaired or hard-of-hearing themselves — are required to communicate with customers using sign language.

The cafe is modeled after a store that opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2016.

At first glance, it doesn't look any different from a regular Starbucks, seen on seemingly every other street corner in the US capital.

Employees wearing black shirts and green aprons emblazoned with the company logo scurry behind the counter to serve hot drinks, cold drinks and pastries to an eager clientele.

People sign with each other as they stand in line at the first US Starbucks "signing store". Photo: AFP

But despite the crowd — perhaps unusually big for mid-morning on a Tuesday — the cafe enjoyed a surprising calm, probably because most conversations were held in silence.

For Witzofsky, it was a revelation.

"It gives deaf people space off-campus, a place to come to and socialize, eat food with other hearing-impaired people and meet other hearing-impaired people as well, and the hearing-impaired employees," she told AFP.

"When I go to a normal Starbucks, I either talk and hope they can hear me and understand, or I show them my order on my phone," she explained.

"Here, your name appears on a screen, which I really, really like, because when they call my order I don't have to try to hear it — it's right on the screen."

'Sign of the week' 

The store has other specific features designed to embrace and celebrate deaf culture — one is the "sign of the week."

Right now, it's for coffee: two closed fists, one on top of the other, rotating in a move that brings to mind a coffee grinder.

There are also special mugs for sale with designs by a hearing-impaired artist, and a transcription of how to sign the logo of the store.

Starbucks is written in sign language on an umbrella outside the new "signing store" in Washington. Photo: AFP

Starbucks says the initiative is aimed at bringing diverse communities together. It comes six months after the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia store that sparked accusations of racism.

The opening got a boost from the presence of Oscar-winning hearing-impaired actress Marlee Matlin.

Seated on an outside patio with their coffees, retired couple Albert and Peggy Hlibok said they had come to the store to "intermingle with the hearing world."

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for all of us," said Peggy, with the help of an interpreter.

"It will teach people not to be afraid to communicate with deaf people. They can see it's just part of who we are, part of our lives, part of the diversity of life."


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