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Ordering a cup of Starbucks coffee should now be a lot easier for the hearing impaired –at least in Washington, D.C.
Starbucks has opened its first U.S. cafe staffed by employees who are partially or fully deaf and capable of communicating in American Sign Language.
The coffee company on Tuesday opened the store, which it calls a Signing Store, near Gallaudet University in Washington. The chain hired as many 25 people from across the country who know ASL to work at the store, which was converted over the last few months from an existing Starbucks location.
“All the barriers are gone from being able to communicate, or from people being able to demonstrate their skills and show off the talent they have," said Marthalee Galeota, senior manager for accessibility at Starbucks, in a statement. "We think this store celebrates the culture of human connection on a deep level.”
The Washington location was modeled on the Seattle-based coffee chain's first Signing Store, which opened in Malaysia in 2016, the company said. The plan to open a Signing Store in the U.S. crystallized last July when American Starbucks employees traveled to Kuala Lumpur to study the one there.
"The store will create a distinctive retail experience for all customers, while offering a unique store format that promotes accessibility and offers employment and career advancement opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing people," Starbucks said in a statement in July 2018 when it announced its plans.
Deaf baristas at the store at Sixth and H streets wear ASL aprons embroidered by a deaf supplier. All baristas who can communicate in sign language will wear an "I Sign" pin. The coffee shop also will boast exclusive artwork, a custom mug designed by a deaf artist and special deaf-friendly features, such as low-glare reflective surfaces.
"Starbucks has taken an innovative approach to incorporating deaf culture that will increase employment opportunities as well as accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people, while at the same time educating and enlightening society,” said Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, sad at the time.
The Signing Store announcement came three months after Starbucks was thrust into the national spotlight amid criticism that its stores weren't inclusive.
In mid-April, two African-American men were arrested for trespassing at one of the chain's Philadelphia locations after they declined to purchase anything while waiting for a business meeting. Starbucks and its top executives repeatedly apologized and settled with the two men for an undisclosed amount of money. Six weeks later, the chain also held racial-bias training for employees at its 8,000-plus company-owned U.S. stores and corporate headquarters.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer