Deaf-Friendly Showcase: Starbucks on E Olive Way, Seattle

Posted by: Staff Writer on April 30, 2012

Your days of fumbling over a "vente soy late half-caffeine, sugar-free vanilla, light foam, no whip, extra hot" order may be coming to an end. Starbucks isn’t just obsessed with roasting Arabica – it’s also fiercely committed to improving the Deaf experience. In Seattle, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, but one in particular stands out: The East Olive Way Starbucks, which is especially popular among Capitol Hill’s large LBGT community.

So, what defines deaf-friendliness, anyway?

“Eye contact, cultural respect, and an upbeat attitude,” said a spokesperson for Starbucks. “We think that being ‘deaf-friendly’ is all of that, plus flexibility in communication – especially since this can vary widely with Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Deaf-Blind customers.”

All partners at the East Olive Way store know some basic sign language. Not hired simply for a technical ability to crank out drinks, baristas are the front-line for deaf patrons. With one store manager and over 30 partners (employees), three partners are fluent in ASL and two of them are currently studying to become ASL Interpreters nearby at Seattle Central Community College. 

A deaf customer recently sent the headquarters a YouTube video, narrating her Starbucks experience. She described walking into the store, getting her beverage and the barista signing, "thank you."

“This customer was moved,” signed Starbucks’ head of diversity matters Marthalee Galeota in Starbucks’ YouTube video. “They didn't say thank you, they signed thank you and she was inspired.”

The customer’s idea: Why not have Starbucks teach all baristas to sign “thank you”? Galeota encourages customers to share ideas, suggestions or feedback at

Technology at Starbucks has come a long way since the first store opened in 1971. In addition to sign language, the company is also using technology to bridge the divide.

"I too, find (baristas signing ‘thank you’) an inspiration,” signs Adam Novsam, a deaf analyst for Starbucks’ energy and resource management department, in the YouTube video. “Just out of curiosity, how do you place your order?”

Novsam swears by his Blackberry. Pulling up the memo section, he pre-fills out the drink he wants and shows it to the barista. “Maybe if we had a menu with icons that you would point to at the counter, or if you would like to fill out a simple order form, or some sort of app on your iPhone or Blackberry,” he suggests.

Novsam is an example of Starbuck’s commitment to both deaf partners and deaf consumers. Not only does the company provide a fully accessible work experience for its deaf and hard of hearing employees, it has hosted AccessExpos which highlights business efforts at inclusion. Annually, they recognize Access Ambassadors – partners who have made access part of the daily work.  Last but not least, they offer training and coaching to their hearing partners about deaf culture, communication, and respectful language (such as using the term “hard of hearing” versus “hearing impaired”).  


 For deaf partners (employees)

  • Interpreters for partners, applicants
  • Communication devices such as VRS, UBI, Captel, and Real Time Captioning
  • Regular workshops on “Creating a Deaf-Friendly Environment”
  • ASL classes taught by a local Deaf instructor
  • Training/coaching about business culture, interviewing, and business English
  • Web-based Interpreter Request System
  • Reserved seating and interpreters for all company meetings
  • Captioning for company videos/webcasts
  • Emergency strobe signalers by desks
  • Tuition reimbursement for partners who enroll in ASL programs

For deaf patrons (customers)

  • Braille and large print menus for Deaf-Blind customers
  • Clear signage
  • Interpreters for Annual Shareholder Meeting (for Deaf and Deaf-Blind shareholders)
  • Apps for ordering and mobile payment
  • Lighting turned up as much as possible
  • Baristas are encouraged to sign “thank you”
  • Community volunteering with ADWAS, DBSC, Deaf Hope, and the Boys/Girls Club Deaf Biz Day


Business owners, how does your business compare? Are you implementing any deaf-friendly tactics? Customers, have you found a more accessible business elsewhere? To get an idea of how to be proactive about implementing and suggesting deaf-friendly measures, watch this Vlog submitted by deaf consumer Chelsea Nelson. Let’s take a cue from Chelsea and Starbucks in working together to create a deaf-friendly consumer experience, one “thank you” at a time!



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